The Rise of Mysticism

Books are so mysterious, so seductive. They are riddles, secrets, prizes, even naked embraces, all wrapped up in one.

I still vividly recall poring over the volumes at Wally's Pipe and Gift Shop, described previously in the entry, Books and Drizzle. Oh, man, if that doesn't bring back memories. In those very early days, I spent hours in bookstores, never sure what treasures would turn up, but turn up they did. Perhaps that's been the major thread of my life: there's always something new to learn; the next book jacket you flip over reveals what you've waited an eternity for. And of course, at Wally's I saw my first bare tits in a seedy magazine entitled Stag, or something like that. If you want to know the truth, the advertisements in the back of the magazine were more interesting, things like "Start Your Own Mail Order Business," or "101 Secrets of Pyrotechnics Revealed," or the best of all, "Thoughts Have Wings." As a lad, it was difficult to choose between ladies in various stages of undress or the Rosicrucians. I was eventually cured of that malady, though.

I would have been in seventh grade or so when I started to unearth tomes of an occult or mystical nature and developed an interest at once. I found the usual things on numerology, typically published by the flamboyant marketeer Zolar, and then some little guides on palmistry, the interpretation of dreams, hypnotism and even crystal ball gazing. This kid was fascinated by all those subjects everyone else seemed to be discounting.

It's almost embarrassing to report, but in that spell (the mid-60's) I watched an episode of
The Patty Duke Show concerning horoscopes, and it caught my attention. Another thing that always titillated me was that Patty's theme song claimed, "A hot dog makes her lose control." But back to astrology... I was instantly intrigued and wanted to know more. My Pop and I made an evening run to Oslund's Drug Store one night, which had a well-stocked news stand. I convinced him to let me buy a copy of an astrology magazine, probably the widely circulated Dell publication. I still remember the shiny, silvery cover with type in purple ink. Isn't it intriguing the things that stick with a person after a half century?

I read it cover to cover, every word, over and over, trying to make sense of this whole new world of arcane science which had arisen. I even pulled out a compass and straight edge to design a wheel of the Zodiac. In a nutshell, I was hooked on looking beyond shadows now.

All throughout high school, without mentioning it much to The Gang, I continued to hit the news stands and also the public library, that magnificent Carnegie affair described in Pater. I read every book on the mystical arts I could lay my hands on (but still made time for girlie magazines, of course). Indeed, by Junior year, I was already hypnotizing friends for entertainment purposes out at the YMCA Lodge, west of town. And that same year, I spent hours memorizing the meanings of playing cards, becoming fairly adept at cartomancy. With the help of my buddy Fake-Nose, we mastered the pendulum to answer yes-no questions, radiesthesia as it's known. I also recall visiting a head shop (those had just started to appear in that age of Aquarius and marijuana) and picking up a pack of Zolar's fortune telling cards, featuring images of the planets and zodiacal symbols printed in garish orange on white. All of a sudden, the world had become four-dimensional.

And this'll amuse my old college pal. Somehow while still in high school, I convinced my mother to let me enroll in a mail order book club (get four volumes FREE just by joining!). Among the "free" volumes for newcomers was Reese P. Dubin's TeleCult Power, an amazingly cheesy volume packed with nothing but nonsense, including how to make a miraculous megaphone from paper in which one could project thoughts to others. Even then, I started to figure out the occult world was filled with mountebanks. But somehow I still hoped there might be something to it, if one could but avoid the quacks. If only those shopping for a new religion were so discriminating. Especially if they run for elected office...

Arriving in Minnesota to live with my brother Bill, I immediately started hitting the Readmore Bookstore. And I got myself a borrowing card from the lovely old library on Broad Street. Oh, how I was enchanted by that pleasure-dome, hanging out for hours! All these years later, I can still vividly recall trudging there through the blinding snow, feet sopping wet in the slush, so happy to have become a Minnesotan, feeling so liberated, on my own, with all those books to read, new people to meet who felt the same way. I was in heaven. Those really were the happiest days of my life, as the closing line of On Patience suggests. Sixteen was a very good age to be.

Anyway, that was a wonderful old library, with stately pillars, marble and limestone portico entry way, mysterious alcoves within. I immediately tucked into the remaining Sinclair Lewis novels I hadn't read yet. Even the lesser known ones, like
Bethel Merriday, grabbed me. I was so excited to be independent, looking for wonders, in a state Lewis loved but which was so new and mysterious to me. And, of course, I was hoping to meet some girls! Somehow starting from scratch, being a transplant, no baggage to account for, made that seem more do-able now. Not to mention, in those days, there were lots of hippie chicks...

Among the books I found there was one on self-hypnosis. I promptly taught myself the practice. I was startled to find that concentrating while reading the instructions, thinking about what the author really was conveying, and most importantly, never giving up, made this all fall into place. It was then that I understood the importance of total commitment. I've learned a number of things well in my time, if I do say so myself, and it's simply because I place a high value on shoving all other distractions to the side. Selfish, but it does get the job done. And ensures you will always be alone, kind of a price to pay.

But all of these obscure occult topics--hypnotism, card reading, numerology, pendulums and the like--still seemed like unrelated, theosophical mumbo-jumbo in many ways. Interesting, yes, but incoherent and unconnected.

And then I stumbled upon a volume which changed all that:
The Tarot of the Bohemians by the French occultist, Papus. I'm virtually certain I bought this at the Readmore. It was arcane, it used much language I was totally unfamiliar with, but it hinted at some sort of unifying theme behind all of the mystical arts, previously unsuspected. 

Even in those pre-mathematical days I longed for axioms I could trust.

All at once, I had discovered that there was a Western Hermetic tradition attempting to tie together magic, alchemy, astrology, the Tarot, radiesthesia, numerology and more, into an integrated body of knowledge. More importantly, I became aware that I wasn't alone. There actually were entire assemblies of practitioners of these occult arts, with a fairly lengthy pedigree. I didn't know it at the time, of course, but this was exactly the same realization Aleister Crowley came to when he stumbled upon Eckhartshausen's
The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary.

The central link was the Qabalah, which Papus pointed me toward, even if that book was riddled with errors, as I would discover a few years later. But lurking just round the corner was the Golden Dawn, and then θέλημα.

In a flash, I knew I had my work cut out for me, much devotion, much study, just to avoid falling into the trap of dilettantism. In the words of the Jethro Tull song which had come out about that year and would make such an imprint on me,
Nothing Is Easy.

Next installment: My Brush with Lucifer

No comments:

Post a Comment