Anyone with an interest in history, especially modern history that goes as far back (& far out) as the 1960s, absolutely must read the brilliant historical poet Ed Sanders’s masterpiece on the cult of Charles Manson, called The Family.
I just finished up with it, the colossal, “data-midden” 540 page 2002 revised edition, that I was inspired to take on after recently rediscovering Sanders’s manifesto “Investigative Poetry,” which is in my view immensely important, both as a literary and political statement.
“Investigative Poetry” was published by City Lights Bookstore in 1976. It could be described as a call to arms of sorts, a calling-all-“bards,” as Sanders likes to say, proclamation that asserts the need for historically minded, verse writing individuals to once again assume their rightful place among the elucidators of history. I first came across “Investigative Poetry” in the early 2010s; led in that direction after fortuitously discovering what might have been the first poem I ever read by Sanders, his brief but thorough work of history-poesy called “The Final Times of Jim Morrison.”
After all of the sensationalized disinformation frankly that I had encountered over the years on this infamous pop cultural icon, Sanders’s very credible take on Morrison’s sudden, mysterious death—in Sanders’s revolutionary, investigative-poetical style—was the first time I became privy to what was indeed factual information that was often left out, or otherwise obscured in more famous works dealing with the subject. The best example is probably the way that Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “The Doors” created an enduring aura of myth around Jim Morrison. Stone’s film is not a documentary of course, but nevertheless purports to be a “biopic,” what is essentially the filmic equivalent of a biography. Morrison’s mysterious death in a bathtub in Paris is depicted in a way that basically conforms with the official story that Morrison died of a heart attack. The subtext would also seem to suggest that any other details or factors involved in his passing will remain for the most part forever unknowable, veiled as they are behind a shroud of perpetual mystery.
This is simply inaccurate.
There is a lot of data on the subject actually, as incomplete as that may be. At the very least what is there proves that there has always been a discrepancy between the facts as they are compared to the official story that went down in the historical register.
I will try to briefly summarize this data, versified by Sanders in “The Final Times of Jim Morrison.”
At around the same time that Jim Morrison’s on again off again girlfriend Pamela Courson had developed a very serious addiction to heroin, she had also become romantically involved with a wealthy French count called Jean de Breteuil, a prominent heroin dealer. In fact it was Jean de Breteuil who had supplied Janis Joplin with the fatal dose of heroin that killed her on October 5, 1970. In the aftermath of this event, de Breteuil was compelled to flee the United States, where he had been residing illegally. He asked Pamela Courson, by this time severely addicted to heroin, to accompany him to Paris; she agreed, apparently “leaving [Jim] Morrison a note / which upon reading he burned.”
In late December of 1970 Courson returned to the United States urging Morrison to quit the Doors and go off with her to live in Paris, where he might be able to focus more on his writing. Morrison eventually consented to this idea. Courson returned to Paris on February 14, 1971. Morrison followed about a month later on March 12.
Courson located an apartment for Morrison that he could sublet evidently “through connections of de Breteuil,” that Morrison moved into around mid-March.
Morrison and Courson drove to Spain on April 10, then flew back to Paris on May 3.
During this time de Breteuil went off to Southern France to meet with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, there with his band on vacation. Over the course of selling heroin to Richards, de Breteuil happened to meet, and subsequently get involved with, the actress Marianne Faithfull, an ex-girlfriend of Mick Jagger, who was staying with acquaintances at a house a few doors down from where the Stones were staying. Faithfull would go on to live with de Breteuil for a few months; she would even decide to accompany him to Paris for a weekend. This turned out to be the weekend of July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison was to perish from an alleged “heart attack.”
Based on the data that is available this characterization of Morrison’s death as having resulted from a “heart attack” is very misleading. It is more generally acknowledged nowadays that Morrison unwittingly consumed an overdose of heroin. This divergence from the official narrative may not appear to make all that much of a difference on the face of it, but actually makes all the difference when considered in the context of how obviously strong a need there was for Courson, de Breteuil and perhaps even others to obscure the distinction between a heroin overdose and a heart attack.
Exactly what happened on July 3, 1971 is where the data is at its patchiest for obvious reasons, but what is known within a relatively fair about of certainty is this.
De Breteuil, and heroin, were involved, based on later confessions from both Pamela Courson and Marianne Faithfull. The story goes that Morrison, who had a well documented aversion to heroin, began consuming a substance with Courson that he was under the impression was cocaine. As Morrison began to experience violent, alarming reactions to the substance, Courson was allegedly unable to do much to help him, due to her own acute heroin intoxication. Courson claims that around 6 AM she finally came to, where she found Morrison lifeless in the bathroom.
The first person Courson contacted was de Breteuil, who according to Marianne Faithfull, left their hotel room in a hurry before “[returning] in the early hours of the morning / in an agitated state.” In almost an exact replay of what had happened with Janis Joplin back in October of 1970, de Breteuil and Faithfull then “manicly packed / and flew to Tangier / where they stayed with his mother / the Comtesse de Breteuil / for a week.”
Courson also called her and Morrison’s friends in Paris, the filmmaker Agnès Varda and Alain Ronay, asking Ronay to call an ambulance for her, because Courson couldn’t speak French.
Alain Ronay it would appear, was the one largely responsible for mediating the situation between Courson and the French authorities. Later, Ronay went on to publish in the April 25, 1991 edition of Paris Match magazine, a confession as to what actually happened in the aftermath of Morrison’s death. After reading the article in the original French, Patricia Kennealy explains on page 385 of her memoir Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison:
[Alain]’s confession is a revelation, and fits in neatly with some of the points at which logic had strained over the years. In fact, what [Alain] Ronay has confessed to, in public and in print, is a masterful coverup, improvised on the spot, that has held for two decades against all comers. Out of what he says was his concern for Jim’s reputation, his wish to avoid the druggy taint that clung to Janis and Jimi. . . and above all his resolution. . . to allow Pamela Courson to evade the weight of the law’s majesty crashing down on her for her actions, [Alain] Ronay lied systematically to the French police and firemen and medical examiners, to the U.S. embassy officials in Paris, to Jim’s friends and family and fans, and to the world forevermore, thus enabling Courson to profit by what she had done and failed to do. . .
Although Morrison and Courson were never married, Courson was Morrison’s legal beneficiary. Upon his death Morrison’s estate, including exclusive rights to the use of his poetry, passed into Courson’s hands. Following Courson’s death by way of heroin overdose in 1974, Morrison’s estate exchanged hands once again. It is now under the control of Pamela Courson’s parents.
This factor, concerning the control of Morrison’s estate, actually goes a long way towards explaining why in despite of the facts, Morrison’s death remains cloaked in an aura of myth.
Patricia Kennealy (whose memoir Strange Days must be acknowledged for what it is; one of the major sources of historical credibility that we have on the subject of Jim Morrison) had extensive contact with Oliver Stone during the production of 1991’s “The Doors.” This is what she has to say about the way that Stone ultimately portrayed Morrison’s death, especially in so far as that pertained to Pamela Courson.
So: the coverup, the untruth, the falsehood, the taradiddle, the subreption, the whopper, the lie. Even Oliver Stone, that soi-disant crusader for ugly truth, goes along with the furtherance of the fairytale: Pam’s parents are said to have given him no choice, requiring him to do so as ransom for permission to use Jim’s poetry—poetry to whose copyright they had fallen heir after their daughter’s death intestate. They even try to prevent Pam being shown, in the movie, as any sort of drug fan at all; and in the event there is but one scene that does so. But the biggest ransom demand the Coursons reportedly make is that Oliver Stone cannot depict their daughter as having had anything whatsoever to do with Jim Morrison’s death.
There are of course, other threads of inquiry that could be taken up in regards to this topic. However at present my intention is not to scrutinize every detail of this one particular case, but rather to emphasize that overall, as a general phenomenon, the existence of obvious discrepancies between data and official narratives in the case of high profile deaths is by no means a rare occurrence. One can detect the obscuring tendency of what is more often than not the media hype apparatus at play in a truly astonishing number of high profile deaths, that are by no means limited to say, Morrison’s other famous 27 Club counterparts; but also in the controversial passing of less “trivial,” more purely historical figures such as John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, even John Lennon, et al.
This brings us back to the underlying topic at hand.
What Ed Sanders is able to do in the comparatively tiny 17 page “The Final Times of Jim Morrison,” he does on a truly epic scale in The Family, a real masterpiece of investigative reporting. There is as of yet no equivalent document that has done as much, at least for me, in facilitating an understanding of the so called “Death of the 60s.”
I do not say this lightly.
One reason is because for as long as I can remember I have always conceived of the 1960s as a fairly definitive turning point in modern history. Another is because of the shear profusion of data that era left behind. It is often overwhelming to the point that, one begins to question whether or not some all illustrious truth object ever actually existed in the midst of everything that happened; or even if it did, that overwhelmingly it would seem like whatever that might have been had pretty much already been lost to the wind. Ironically the more I look into it the more I am starting to understand why I always thought that.
I was doing some follow up research on Sanders’s The Family for starters as there is indeed, something about Sanders’s work that infects you with an all-encompassing passion for gnosis. I came across an article in Bomb magazine from September 25, 2018 called “Digging Our Way Through the Data Midden.” This article, written by one Ammiel Alcalay, is for the most part a review of Sanders’s latest historical epic, Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy. In the article Mr. Alcalay contends with why the work of people like Ed Sanders, whom Alcalay sees as a kind of “citizen investigator” poet, is so essential in the 21st century.
In many ways, the modern history of the United States moves along parallel lines: one line emerges from the ideological propaganda, cognitive dissonance, and psychological warfare pioneered by Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays starting in the 1920s, becoming fully weaponized by the 1950s to expand US imperial interests exponentially and subjugate domestic dissent. Another line emerges from archival documentation, eye-witness accounts, common sense, and the willingness to relentlessly question the basic assumptions of the constructions of reality that have become both surround sound and something almost like a second skin, enclosing and suffocating the parameters of our rational and imaginative faculties.
After reading The Family there really is no denying the discrepancies between the facts of the case as presented by Sanders and the mythology of Charles Manson that has, as a result of media saturation, been passed down to us over the last 50 years. The effect is indeed, one of “cognitive dissonance;” a feeling that popular explanations are in a very real sense fantasies which have been cobbled together—from aspects of the data, true—but in ways that ultimately contradict with the reality of the situation when apposed in the context of the bigger picture. This poses a veritably existential predicament that could be likened to the concept of double bind in psychology or what is known colloquially as being damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We are talking about the instantiation of a dilemma whereby accepting the fantasy explanation is to remain in essence, willfully ignorant or disinformed; whereas the alternative, “[questioning] the basic assumptions of the constructions of reality” helps one fair no better for the most part, only stranding one in exponentially more precarious domains of the unknown. Even if satisfactory conclusions can then be reached within that deep and dark domain it goes without saying that one will discover themselves in possession of a category of information set firmly outside the boundaries of the status quo, far beyond what has been deemed socially acceptable to talk about. The truth is that a large portion of humanity craves oversimplified information permitting of totalized certainty—which is after all, the bounty of willful ignorance—especially when posed with inconvenient ambiguities of a social, political or metaphysical nature. By the same token however I would hope that an equivalent or even larger segment of humanity views unwarranted levels of absolute certainty as the indelible red flag of suspicion. I would hope that people still value Socratic humility in the face of doubt, in other words.
This is precisely the type of ethos that Ed Sanders lives out in his investigation of the Manson Family. His methodology demands that his readers come to their own conclusions about the Manson Family case; a situation that bears fruit of a strange, horrific aspect. Unfortunately however the truth is often like that. No on can just hand it to you. It doesn’t came in easily digestible, 30 minute news packets. It demands a commitment to seeking it out. Quite often this means that one must take on the responsibility for a fair amount of truth-sleuthing themselves.
One thread in particular that struck me in this vein was the “Esalen connection.”
This is the notion that there was/is something vaguely suspicious about the Esalen Institute in the Big Sur area of California, that is worthy of citizen investigation. I first became interested in this line of inquiry after learning about the fact that Charles Mansion had taken a pilgrimage of sorts to Esalen in the direct lead up to the Tate-LaBianca murders in early August of 1969.
This stood out to me because throughout The Family Sanders is routinely able to report on what Manson was doing and for the most part why, often in fully chronological order and more often than not, through the inclusion of specific dates and times. Therefore it seemed notable that, as Sanders writes on page 190 of his 2002 revised edition, “the chronology of Manson’s whereabouts during the days between August 1 and 8 is filled with gaps.”
The data was scant, but there are a few details which, when taken together, seem to warrant suspicion.
It is known for example, on July 30, 1969 several days before Manson seemingly decided on a whim to visit Esalen on August 3, “to enjoy the mineral baths” as Manson later claimed; that a phone call was made to Esalen for unknown reasons from 10050 Cielo Drive. 10050 Cielo Drive was of course the residence of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, where 5 victims including Tate would be brutally slain by members of the Manson Family on August 8, about one week later.
One of those 5 victims at 10050 Cielo Drive, heiress of coffee Abigail Folger, was known to have attended seminars at Esalen.
She could have been the one to place the call; or maybe it was Sharon Tate, who is also reputed to have attended seminars at Esalen.
These are circumstantial details, but become underscored later in The Family on pages 458-459, when in February of 1971, Sanders attended a luncheon with an unnamed attorney with ties to Esalen. Sanders notes that this attorney was later listed in the 1973 book The Encounter Game by Bruce L. Maliver as one of three “Esalen directors.” This is what Sanders writes about the meeting:
[The attorney] mentioned that the Esalen Institute was upset (apparently over the fact that Manson had gone there just before the murders, and that it might become public). Three or four times during the evening [he] said that if I was following the story of a group of “twelve former Scientologists” who turned satanist and were into sacrifice, then “you should keep your mouth shut” because they’d likely kill me. Mixed in with his talk about the satanists, he told me that Peter Folger, father of Abigail Folger, had spent $500,000 paying people off in this case. Twice he said this. When I asked why Abigail Folger’s parents were so eager to cool it all out, he said something about “San Francisco society.”
Much of the information contained in that paragraph is in need of explication.
As I intend to limit the scope of this essay, mainly to focus on my perceptions regarding the Esalen Institute, I hope only a brief outline of the complex relationships involved here will suffice.
Let’s begin with Scientology and Satanism.
If there is a point where the seemingly disparate influences of Scientology and Satanism converged in this case, that was undoubtedly in the form of a rather visible organization from this period called The Process Church of the Final Judgment. This organization was founded by one Mary Ann Maclean and one Robert Moore. Mary Ann Maclean was born in Glasgow, U.K. in 1931. Robert Moore was born in Shanghai, China in 1935 but returned to England with his mother at the age of 1.
In the early 1960s, Maclean and Moor met each other at the Hubbard Institute of Scientology in London, where both were studying to become Scientology practitioners. As a result of some intense therapy sessions the two underwent together, they ended up falling in love. Eventually they were married, taking between them the surname de Grimston. Around 1963 Mary Ann and Robert de Grimston left the Church of Scientology in order to found their own organization called Compulsion Analysis, a client cult offering therapy sessions modeled after mind-mastery “auditing” techniques developed by Scientology founded L. Ron Hubbard.
Over the course of the next two and a half years the de Grimston attracted a core group of clients that would go on to make up the foundation of The Process. This was what the organization rebranded itself around 1966 to reflect an evolution within the cult, referring to the way their various rituals and group therapy session were called “processes.” From here the cult began to take on a definitively religious character although had not yet fully embraced the particularly satanic elements of occultism, including an emphasis on apocalyptic violence that was to become fundamental to the organization’s theology by the time The Process evolved into a full blown church and felt called to begin proselytizing internationally. This shift toward satanic occultism occurred following a religious transformation that members of the group underwent in Xtul, Mexico, where the nascent church had embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage. Members of The Process became firm millenarians after surviving a hurricane that solidified a pantheon in their theology which went on to consist of three primary gods Jehovah, Lucifer and Satan.
Taking a closer look at the specific brand of dogma issuing forth from The Process Church of the Final Judgment, as the organization was later to be incorporated, is necessary at this point. Doing so will actually establish the thematic objective of this essay in three particular ways.
The first and most basic objective is to demonstrate—by pointing out the obvious similarities between The Process Church’s apocalyptic theology, and Charles Manson’s own apocalyptic theology of Helter Skelter—just one out of a multitude of ways in which the Manson myth, as it were, is deficient; at least in terms of being an accurate depiction of historical reality. The Manson myth in this sense might be defined as the notion that Manson “acted alone” so to speak; that his particular brand of evil was as it were, an isolated strand, or but the manifestation of a lone nutcase in the void. This presupposition is demonstrated to be false by the mind-boggling amount of evidence—much of which is brilliantly documented by Ed Sanders in The Family—that shows the extensive quantity of underlying connections and motivations behind the Manson case which get meaningfully distorted, or excluded wholesale from the mythological version of events that most people take to be an accurate representation of historical fact.
The second and third ways the objective of this essay will be demonstrated are somewhat intertwined; one being to analyze certain characteristics of what are called new religious moments. The Process Church of the Final Judgment is a good example of a so called new religious movement, as are cultural elements that came out of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California such as the Human Potential Movement, what was a precursor to today’s “New Age” spirituality. The other is the way these movements more often than not involved a particularly modern form of syncretism whereby elements of pseudoscience and pseudomysticism were combined to create rather dubious cultic entities, through a process that for lack of a better term might be classified as a form of disinformation. I say a form of disinformation because the process essentially functions in the same way that disinformation functions, by undermining various truthful elements of an information flow not unlike the way a virus might; latching on to data and mimicking it and copying it, but in key distortive ways that ultimately destroy the integrity of the system.
These overarching themes being laid out as such, let’s focus on the theological system of one new religious movement in particular, The Process Church of the Final Judgment.
The Process Church’s theology was based, as is basic Christian theology for the most part, on inherent dualisms. For example the Processans believed that God was a supreme being, infinite and perfect but therefore by the same token, humanity was imperfect, finite and inferior to God. They believed that Christ, as the Son of God, was an intermediary element capable of unifying these dichotomous elements. Another dichotomy identified by the Processans was an opposition between Christ and Satan. This was basically the key opposition in Processan theology represented by the idea that Christ and Satan were mortal enemies, who through the power of love might reconcile their differences, bringing about the final unification process that was to establish their millenarian utopia by triggering the apocalypse.
Another aspect of The Process Church’s system, a characteristic shared with other spiritual disinformation cults among new religious movements, is that the organization’s theological system also functioned simultaneously as a kind of psychological model. The gods of the Processan pantheon Jehovah, Lucifer, Satan and Christ, were also said to represent different aspects of the human personality. There was an entire pseudopsychological model not unlike a Myers-Briggs test, where the archetypes of the Processan pantheon had been combined into four major personality types Jehovian-Satanic, Jehovian-Christian, Luciferian-Satanic, and Luciferian-Christian. There was even a questionnaire that potential cult initiates could fill out in order to discover their “personality type, or god pattern” (Entry on the Process Church at the World Religion and Spiritualty Project).
I should say here that while I do believe integration of psychological and spiritual elements into a unified system is possible, this sort of combinatory process would need to be carried out with a fair amount of wisdom and intelligence. Needless to say wisdom and intelligence are going to be in short supply in any modern cultic environment, where authoritarian systems of strict hierarchical organization and compulsory obedience are integral factors in the successful operations of a cult. Therefore I am of the opinion that unscrupulous fusions of spiritual and psychological elements especially in the context of new religious movements, are liable to lead in one of two directions. One is to a relatively innocuous although ultimately harmful form of spiritual materialism. The other, the worst case scenario as exemplified in The Process Church or The Manson Family, is to unleash a hideous, often murderous form of occultism.
I will give one brief example of how fusing, or confusing rather than wisely integrating spiritual and psychological elements can by analogy be compared to a disinforming process, or perhaps even a kind of psychological black magic. Take say the Processan notion of the unification of opposites which is, as far as psychological models go, an important concept in Jungian psychology. It is well known for example, that Jung considered the basic Christian theological world view to be rather neurotic in a psychological sense, due to a basically pathological fear and hatred of the Devil. Jung’s view was that this represented, in his understanding of the human personality, an inability to integrate what he called The Shadow. This was the archetypal dark side of the human personality, representative of those things people fear, hate, or do not understand about themselves. Failure to integrate this shadow side, mainly through repression, was often the root cause of various neuroses or pathologies including a proclivity towards violence. This of course makes certain psychological sense, although in the case of an entity like the Process Church which conflated psychological elements with spiritual elements an idea that was meant to be taken as a purely psychological concept, transmutes into something far more ambiguous, a tenet which can be taken in one way, or another, or even as both simultaneously. This dissolving of the meaningful boundaries in between opposing concepts and elements goes a long way towards explaining in some sense the perverse, murderous and satanic phenomenon at the heart of Charles Manson.
Many authors including Ed Sanders have commented on the obvious parallels between Manson’s theology and that of The Process Church, so I will not go any further into that here. What I do think is important to mention however are all of the indications that Manson might have actually been an initiate of The Process Church himself; or if not an initiate of that organization specifically, then of another perhaps even larger and more all-encompassing satanic organization that was devoted to black magic occultism of a particularly ghastly variety, that is to say, one which routinely practiced human sacrifice. There is evidence to support this conclusion, even though that evidence has been systematically obscured through certain distortive tactics, some of them legal, some of them extra-legal. The most explicit example of this would be the well known story of how Ed Sanders and his publisher E. P. Dutton & Co. were sued by The Process Church of the Final Judgment in 1972 shortly after the release of the very first edition of The Family. This original edition of the book not only tied The Process Church to the Tate-LaBianca murders, but also to another high profile incident of mayhem in the late 1960s, namely by way of connections to Sirhan Sirhan the man who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968. The Process Church won the case (although it is worth mentioning that in England, where libel laws are purportedly stricter, they lost) forcing Sanders and E. P. Dutton & Co. to remove all formal mention of The Process in further editions of the book. However this did not totally impede Sanders from communicating the wealth of data he had collected on connections between Manson and various elements of “Scientology and Satanism.” He simply had to resort to making oblique references to this fundamental, subterranean element in the Manson case, by variously referring to “an English satanic organization,” or “a well-known international occult society,” or “the devil cult,” “[a] parent world-wide satanic organization,” “a satanic group of English origin,” “[a] satanic cult,” “[a] satanic society,” etc. While this does muddy the waters to the extent that it becomes hard to determine when Sanders is referring to The Process Church of the Final Judgment and when he is referring to other similar or splinter groups of that particular organization, there are times when he includes enough circumstantial data that it becomes possible to discern The Process out of particular details
For example in Chapter 112 of the 2002 revised edition of The Family, a pivotal chapter in terms of documenting the depth of weirdness and intrigue bound up with this time period, Sanders mentions “a satanic group of English origin that had oozed to America in 1967, 1968 and 1969,” which also had “Mexican operations.” These specific details all strongly point, albeit indirectly to The Process Church. Chapter 112 “An INS Agent Investigates,” is undoubtedly worth dwelling on here for a moment, because of the immensity of particular implications contained therein. It details a moment in 1974 when Sanders learned about an Immigration and Nationalization service criminal investigation that “delved not only into the activities of the English Satanists, but also into the Robert Kennedy assassination, the activities of Sirhan Sirhan, and finally into Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate.” Sanders was working with a private investigator at the time who was permitted to read this INS report. Sanders writes:
The report stated that English Satanist cult members invited Sirhan Sirhan to a number of parties that were sponsored by television people in the L.A. area, and that one of the parties took place at Sharon Tate’s residence. […] [The report also stated that] a Los Angeles law-enforcement agency had an informant who averred that the English Satanist group had commissioned Manson to kill Sharon Tate. […] The reason for the contact. . . was “something that [Tate] unfortunately overheard that she was not supposed to overhear either in regards to Sirhan Sirhan or about Sirhan Sirhan.”
Further inquiring into what information might have been sensitive enough to require Sharon Tate be killed, Sanders’s private investigator was told by the INS agent.
“I cannot discuss that. It’s a matter of national security.”
This takes us back to the fact that there was information regarding the Tate-LaBianca murders apparently sensitive enough to require that the Folger family pay out a sum of about $500,000 in hush money. There was obviously something rather big below the surface in need of covered up. Thus it’s worth inquiring into some of the underlying connections that existed between the Folger family, Charles Manson and The Process Church of the Final Judgment, that are conspicuous enough to warrant suspicion in this case; a case that has for that matter always been portrayed in the official mythology as one of nihilistic randomness, as one of senseless carnage for which no motivation beyond a perfect storm of evil and insanity, was ever thoroughly presented.
I don’t think it would be inaccurate to characterize these connections as pertaining to “San Francisco society.”
Best place to start in my view is with the web of association running through the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. This institution was a visible part of the slouching toward utopian aspect of flower power in the so called 1967 Summer of Love.
When Manson was released from jail in California on March 21, 1967 his federal parole officer was a man named Roger Smith. Around January of 1968 Smith quit being a parole officer in order to establish a drug counseling program connected with the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. It would appear that Smith actually befriended Manson, likely introducing him to Al Rose, the administrative head of the clinic, who it is said Manson crashed with for a time in San Francisco. Al Rose also became associated with some of the girls in the Manson Family. Rose and the medical director of the clinic, a man named Dr. David Smith, would perform a formal academic study on the Family circa 1968, titled “The Group Marriage Commune: A Case Study,” published in the November 1970 issue of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs.
Sometime around spring or summer of 1968 Mrs. Inez Folger, mother of Abigail Folger, started volunteering at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. She assisted Dr. David Smith by helping with the drug treatment program. Furthermore, as Ed Sanders writes on page 40 of the 2002 revised edition of The Family:
Mrs. Folger helped the clinic receive a grant from the Bothin Foundation and $25,000 from the Merill Trust, according to a high official at the clinic. She held several fund-raising parties at her house during the year she worked at the clinic. Abigail Folger, as well as Colonel and Mrs. Tate, attended one such benefit party given by Mr. and Mrs. Folger at their home and it appears that one or more members of Manson’s Family, perhaps Manson himself, attended that fund-raising cocktail party.
(Roger Smith, Manson’s federal parole officer during March of 1967, recounted how bad he had felt when he had seen the newspaper headlines one day at Haight-Ashbury clinic in late 1969 that the Family had been arrested for murder. He said he recalled the fund-raising party at Inez Folger’s house.)
It has also been alleged that Abigail Folger knew Charles Manson personally, most notably in Maury Terry’s 1987 investigative work The Ultimate Evil. The book traces underlying connections between Son of Sam murderer David Burkowitz and a satanic organization known as the Four Pi movement, alleged to have been an offshoot of The Process Church of the Final Judgment. According to Terry’s information Abigail Folger, like her mother, was into doling out quantities of the family fortune to various people or causes. It is said that in September of 1967 Folger advanced $10,000 to an art house in San Francisco called the Straight Theater, very possibly at the behest of Manson himself. If true this bears witness to a very interesting connection between Folger, Manson and The Process Church as in Chapter 3 of The Family, Sanders writes:
One informant later alleged that Manson met members of an English satanic organization that was proselytizing on the Haight in 1967, at a house owned or rented by the owners of the Straight Theater.
Members of The Process Church were indeed proselytizing on the Haight in 1967. Moreover the location of the Straight Theater was on the corner of Haight and Cole. As Maury Terry writes on page 608 of the 1987 edition of The Ultimate Evil:
Not coincidentally, Manson lived at 636 Cole during this period, and the Process was ensconced at No. 407 on that block.
Again it is notable, if not highly suspicious that significant connections such as these underlying key figures in the Manson case were covered up, in so far as the story has been handed down to us that characterizes the Tate-LaBianca murders as but a random outburst of senseless violence. The fact that it can be demonstrated that most if not all of the key figures in the case were tied intimately with one another makes the official notion that they were not, look like a deliberate fabrication. In general this is the uncomfortable truth at the dark heart of what concerns us here; although in having already expounded much time on sketching out some of these basics, I should return to the question of where if at all, the Esalen institute fits into it, the subterranean reality underlying the dominant myth.
(Interestingly enough the concept of Esalen as an object of suspicion already occupies a space within the popular imagination, most notably in Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. In the novel an entity called the Chryskylodon Institute, conspicuously modeled after Esalen, is portrayed as a nexus of sorts; a place where the seemingly disparate worlds of illegal drug smuggling, covert government operations and a hip spirituality movement, all appear to have converged.)
To begin with the Esalen Institute is most famous for having exerted a strong influence on what scholar Theodore Roszak deemed the “Counter Culture” of the 1960s. How was by being at the center of the so called Human Potential Movement, a new religious phenomenon that grew into what is nowadays referred to as “New Age.” Before proceeding with a critique of the foundational zeitgeistbehind Esalen, the New Age ethos that Esalen for the most part spawned, here is some background information about the institute.
It was founded in 1962 by Richard Price and Michael Murphy, both Stanford University graduates who first met sometime around 1960 through a Vedanta meditation group located in San Francisco. Using capital provided by Price’s father who was vice president of Sears at the time, the institute was constructed on a 375 acre plot of land in Big Sur which Murphy’s family had owned since 1910. Known for its majestic hot springs, the area was once sacred grounds for the Esselen Indian tribe—peoples all but decimated nowadays—from which the name of the institute is derived.
In the early 1950s, as an undergraduate at Stanford, Michael Murphy had been introduced to concepts of Hinduism by a German scholar of Asian religions called Frederic Spiegelberg. Murphy was later inspired to move to India, where he lived for eighteen months at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, a spiritual community. Through a meditation group studying under one of Sri Aurobindo’s disciples in San Francisco, Murphy met Richard Price.
Price, similar to Murphy, had been inspired by courses on comparative religion taught by Frederic Spiegelberg at Stanford University. Other parallels in the lives of these two men, before they met, were that both had spent time in the military after graduating from Stanford; both graduated with degrees in psychology; and both decided to drop out of grad school in order to pursue burgeoning proto-New Age sensibilities. While Murphy was studying meditation at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in India however, Price spent an almost equivalent period of time in a mental hospital; institutionalized by his parents after undergoing an experience that nowadays might be referred to as a “spiritual crisis.”
Around 1960, Price attended a lecture at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, delivered by the prominent English writer and mystic Aldous Huxley. This lecture, titled “Realizing Human Potential” was to have a major effect on Price, as well as on the founding philosophy of Esalen. In fact, the overall influence of Aldous Huxley’s ideas on the foundation of Esalen, seems impossible to overstate. The very first series of seminars that Esalen rolled out in the fall of 1962 for example, called “The Human Potentiality,” were based on Huxley’s lecture. Furthermore the importance of this concept is obviously reflected in the name given to the outgrowth of Esalen’s social and political agenda, the Human Potential Movement.
A friend and contemporary of Aldous Huxley’s called Gerald Heard, who was also a British expatriate, writer and mystic similarly exerted a powerful influence over the foundation of Esalen. Heard and Huxley had cofounded a spiritual retreat in the Santa Ana mountains southeast of Los Angeles called Trabuco College of Prayer, operational from 1942 to 1949. It evidently served as an early model for Esalen. The concept of Human Potential is said to have been its “guiding principle.” This was the belief, as preached by Gerald Heard, that human beings “were on the cusp of an evolutionary advance—that the tide of evolution would allow mankind to merge with God’s infinite consciousness” (“Chasing the Divine,” Don Lattin, 2011).
It should be apparent to anyone familiar enough with contemporary New Age spirituality that such an idea is still very much a part of the ethos of that belief system. It would also appear to be thefundamental illusion at the heart of that belief system; the old millenarian carrot on a stick, a sleight of hand, quite frankly, that was and still is cleverly obscured behind a guise of syncretism. This syncretism in a sense reflects the coming together of Heard and Huxley, as well as the coming together of Murphy and Price, i.e. it is a coming together of the psychological and the spiritual, the scientific and the religious. At the same time it is also the syncretism of an astonishingly diverse range of religious traditions all being lumped together into one single category that “Westerners” arbitrarily refer to as “Eastern.”
Far from creating a helpful distinction, these designations boil a great number of distinct entities down into absolute categories such that the valuable similarities and differences between them become at best obscured or at worst irrelevant. A project that would appear on the surface to be about promoting unity, but which actually is about increasing conformity; on some level it works according to principles involved in the creation of “black propaganda,” or disinformation—but more on that aspect later.
Moreover these designations carry with them the overtly imperialist assumption that there is something altogether exceptional about the “West,” or by the same token Other about the “East.”
Indeed the Esalen project purports to be an experiment in mingling “Eastern” traditions with those of the “West,” an idea that in theory looks like an attempt to syncretize strands of Asian mysticism with European scientism derived from the Enlightenment. However in practice this project invariably becomes a pretense for appropriating “Eastern” cultural traditions under the guise of their somehow being deficient according to a key “Western” tenet, or their needing tempered by some inherently “Western” value.
But before getting any further into this critique of thinly veiled cultural imperialism, let’s return for a moment to the concept of Human Potential.
Again, this was the idea, at least in Gerald Heard’s view that human beings were on an evolutionary path towards increased spirituality, a path that was at last going to culminate in apprehending a transcendental object at the end of time, or in fusion with the Godhead. Aldous Huxley’s take on the concept was more or less in tune with this, only decidedly more science-ified; more in line with the visions of dystopia/utopia that he laid out in such novels as Brave New World (1932) and Island (1962).
Aldous Huxley was of course a man who enjoyed, and continues to enjoy a brilliant reputation as an intellectual; no doubt he was a persuasive lecturer. His theory of Human Potentiality was based on empirical evidence it would appear, as he mentions in the 1962 lecture “Realizing Human Potential:”
The neurologists have shown us that nobody, no human being has ever made use of more than, perhaps as much as ten percent of all the neurons in his brain; and perhaps if we set about it in the right way, we may be able to produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is.
He goes on to suggest that human beings might further evolve by way of technocratic processes such as selective breeding (i.e. eugenics), the use of pharmacological aids (i.e. drugs), or other various means which seem to me a great deal like some prototypical form of “perception management” (i.e. brainwashing).
Considering how prominently this theme of Human Potential has continued to manifest in the popular culture of the 21st century—whether that’s through the pseudomystical guise of say the 2012 prophecy, or the pseudoscientific guise of transhumanist singularity—I find it alarming that, after nearly six decades, this clearly fraudulent, reprocessed millenarianism has not been more openly and intelligently criticized.
For starters just consider Huxley’s claim, that he makes within the first five minutes of the “Realizing Human Potential” lecture; this idea that human beings only ever utilize about ten percent of their brain. As the reader has no doubt already realized as this urban legend has become astonishingly wide spread, there is no truth whatsoever to such a claim. Known as the ten percent of the brain myth, there is some confusion as to where this urban legend originated, as well as how it came to be so broadly disseminated. It is surely one of the more unusual types of urban legends in that it so happens to be of the scientific variety. Given the nature of Aldous Huxley’s towering reputation as an intellectual however, as well as the lasting influence this concept of Human Potential has had on mass culture, through Esalen and basically mainstream acceptance of New Age, I don’t think one has to look much further than Huxley’s “Realizing Human Potential” lecture to find the origin as well as means for dissemination of such a pervasive myth. It certainly begs the question of exactly where Huxley acquired his purportedly empirical data; or if his claim to the heretofore latent potentialities within the human organism, was even based on any actual scientific data at all. What seems clear is that he presented his claim as if there was evidence; there is simply no other way to interpret his rhetoric, as he appeals to the expertise of neurologists.
The neurologists have shown us. . .
Indeed, he does what technocrats are wont to do by appealing to experts as religious people do to gods; that is to say, to popular sources of perceived infallibility. It lends him the appearance of credibility, making us more likely to find his argument persuasive, because we tend to want to believe highly credentialed people when they tell us things; especially when those people succeed in dazzling us with far off sources of authoritative knowledge that would seem to extend beyond our limited understanding.
Bearing this in mind I think it’s fair to say that from the very beginning this idea of Human Potential was shot through with, if not disinformation per se then at the very least, quite an egregious error. Again we’re taking about the idea that human beings are on the brink of spiritual evolution; a process that only requires specific forms of heterodox mystical or psychological practices in order to activate, such as the ingestion of psychedelic substances or engagement in Tantric sex. This idea, if not a deliberate sleight of hand or carrot on a stick, is but the same old millenarian Emperor in new clothes; a dubious pseudoscientific/pseudomystical claim that was in essence, nothing more than the establishment of a thoroughly modern myth.
But this is only to look critically at the ostensibly scientific or psychological aspect of the faulty premises behind this concept; of equal if not greater importance are the errors, or deliberate obfuscations inherent in the purportedly mystical side of it. Again, focusing a critical eye on the particular influence Aldous Huxley brought to bear on this aspect, should help to illuminate my point.
Let’s begin by briefly examining Huxley’s notion of The Perennial Philosophy; especially in so far as that idea contradicts metaphysically with his pseudotheory of Human Potential.
The term Perennial Philosophy itself has a complex origin; not to mention that as a concept, it proves rather difficult to define. This doesn’t so much concern us however, as at present we can limit ourselves to examining Huxley’s basic employment of the term, which he succeeded in popularizing by way of a 1945 publication titled The Perennial Philosophy. This book was basically an anthology of select passages culled from various sacred texts or the writings of mystics throughout the ages. Huxley’s introduction to the text would seem to stand as the best example of how he understood and wished to communicate this idea of Perennial Philosophy. The very first sentence of his introduction reads as follows:
Philosophia Perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal.
Am I the only one who feels like this sentence is unnecessarily convoluted?
But my own personal sensibilities on writing aside, there is no getting around the fact that amusingly, as in his “Realizing Human Potential” lecture Huxley has committed here, in despite of his air of intellectual authority, an immediate factual error. While this error is of far less consequence than his extensive promulgation of the ten percent of the brain myth, nevertheless he is simply wrong to state that the phrase Perennial Philosophy (philosophia perennis) was “coined by Leibniz.”
(One does begin to wonder just how Mr. Huxley continues to enjoy such an unchallenged reputation, if he was indeed this in the habit of getting things so immediately wrong.)
But this pettiness aside; why don’t we begin more of a substantial critique by noting the connections here between this sentence and the new religious thought that we looked into previously.
It seems that Huxley tends to lean towards mixing a vocabulary of mysticism with that of scientism. Just consider the way he speaks of “the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to. . . divine Reality.” This syncretic tendency I feel, is epitomized in the phrase itself, “divine Reality.” Baked into this amalgam is both the inherent certitude of explicit scientism, which purports exclusive authority over uncovering Reality; as well as the devoutly religious certainty in believing said Reality principle must be deified, or in some sense, divine.
Keep in mind this reflects more than anything else the particular world view that Mr. Huxley brings to bear on the concept of Perennial Philosophy. He interprets it in his own particular way, a concept that essentially rejects the idea that there could ever actually be one particular interpretation of it. This is because Perennialism, in so far as I understand the concept, asserts that at the origin of all phenomenon, especially mystical phenomenon, there is an eternal recurrence. Based on the nature of infinity, this can be said neither to have terminated or commenced, but to perennially manifest in a multiplicity of patterns. In this way Perennialism can be understood as the idea that there is truth at the heart of all religious traditions precisely because they share at bottom this same recursive origin.
This characteristic bears out in the very definition of the word perennial. It means that which lasts, or exists for a long or apparently infinite time; also that which endures, or continually recurs. I bring this up to emphasize what seems to me to be the quintessential aspect of Perennialism, or a Perennial Philosophy, namely that “truth” in a sense, or being, what have you, implies a circle. Furthermore this notion of circularity is perhaps the most recurrent pattern one discerns among dare I say every single mystical tradition, mystery religion or esoteric school of philosophy that has ever existed throughout recorded history. At the core of all that ancient wisdom, is the simple fact that every truth shows a common origin, in one’s coming to understand the fundamentally cyclical nature of being and time.
But to avoid waxing on in far too poetically abstract of terms about this, allow me to break off here, having secured this important distinction for us to take away. The defining characteristic of a Perennial Philosophy as we have seen in the definition of perennial itself, is that the wisdom of this philosophy can be said to recur, such that the phenomenon implies the circularity of time.
It is therefore notable that this definitive characteristic gets left out in Huxley’s perennialism concept. In fact, if anything he seems to conceive of this idea in exactly the opposite fashion. Where the idea is in essence free flowing, he appears to close it off. As an example, simply go back to that first rather convoluted sentence of his introduction to The Perennial Philosophy, where he speaks of “man’s final end;” then recall if you will, the whole pseudotheory behind the concept of Human Potential. Suddenly it begins to seem like we’re looking at a model of time that’s quite obviously and arbitrarily linear.
I contend that this move was the first, perhaps deliberate sleight of hand; the subtle insertion of a carrot on a stick, that obscured an otherwise intuitive, mystical understanding of the nature of time behind a veil of millenarianism. One needs only consider the state of the world, and the role new religious movements continue to play in keeping folks of the first world pleasantly deluded, to see just how far that carrot has carried and continues to carry us forward ever deeper into a world of perennial illusions. The spell if you will at the center of this confusion is again, the conflation of an intuitive understanding of time as cyclical with a millenarian construct of time as teleological. It takes a wisdom tradition based on seeking the timeless source of knowledge within one’s self—within the eternally recursive now—and reroutes that outwardly, towards some theoretically possible but perennially far off moment in time. It serves to focus one’s desires on an imagined utopia; indeed deluding one into seeking after this “heaven” of sorts, always one step beyond in the perpetual future when Human Potentialities as it were, had finally been realized. One longs forevermore to reach “man’s final end” in the always theoretical, perennially unrealizable last evolution into a divine being.
Look no further than the relatively recent 2012 phenomenon to see how this sleight of hand is still capable of maintaining the same old illusion up until the present day. Even after the prophecy was shown to be inconclusive, as all teleological prophecies inevitably are, no doubt there are still those in the New Age community who retain their belief in the millenarian ideology. It is because as time goes on in its circular fashion, so too does the promise of transcendence ever remain a distinct possibility on the horizon. One perennially readjusts their hopes and dreams to focus on that ever elusive transcendent object at the end of time; either that or one resigns themselves to resentful cynicism, convinced that cosmic change of any significant quality will never come. Both attitudes are flawed, based on a misconception of change as somehow conforming to the linear dimensions of a timeline (or timewave, based on the ruminations of famed Esalen associate Terrence McKenna).
It seems to me that this most basic of metaphysical errors stems again from the perhaps deliberate rerouting of seekers from the correct object of their attention. According to perennialism this object is not to be sought in the direction of some far off transcendent point, dangling like a carrot on a stick forever before us, but rather in the direction of where the so called “Ground of all being” as Huxley would say, would appear to reside immanently within all of us, namely in the past; or more specifically, where the past and future meet as it were, in the eternally recursive moment that is Now. This is the origin of that classic bit of New Age folk wisdom that states the Time is Now. Paradoxically however this axiom of the so called New Age utterly contradicts with the illusory pseudotheory of Human Potential, what is in my view nothing more than a classic recasting of the mind forged manacles of illusion, binding consciousness yet again to the proverbial cave whereby shadows of desire eternally distract us from ascertaining a deeper understanding of the universe.
Along this line of thinking I have come to understand that the entire ethos of New Age spirituality is in a very real sense, perhaps the ultimate spiritual disinformation campaign. But more on that later. For no let’s focus on the ridiculous assumption that these ideas are in some sense “new.” On one level, the various spiritual traditions that all get lumped into this category of New Age such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, aspects of Shamanism, etc. are it should go without saying tremendously old, and basically in every case a hell of a lot older than even the concept of “Western Civilization.” On another level, in that sense of there being a Perennial Philosophy, these ideas are timeless—neither new nor old—never truly new, in so far as they are never truly old.
This is where I think at last, we arrive at the inherently political aspect of all of this. It is where it becomes difficult to look at the syncretic chimera that is New Age spirituality and see anything other than a loosely veiled form of cultural appropriation that serves the ongoing interests of global imperialism. Of course, political domination more often than not, takes on the form of a game of divide and conquer. Thus we have this categorically useless although politically important primary division into the “East” and the “West.” It seems to me that this division serves two major functions; the first is to categorize these domains as being somehow fundamentally different from one another, especially in the sense that the “East” epitomizes a place of Otherness. The second is to maintain a power boundary on the grounds of this Otherness in which the “East” becomes subordinated to the “West” due to some perceived, inherently exceptional characteristics on the part of the “West” that entitles that domain to establish and maintain preeminence. Invariably this exceptionalism seems to break down to the frankly vacuous, largely fabricated pretension of the “West,” which seems to fancy itself as the bastion of “Democracy.”
This same tendency to rationalize “Eastern” subordination to the “West,” due to perceived characteristics of ingrained categorical difference (i.e. superiority), can be seen to have played out in the main objective of Esalen’s Human Potential project; an attempt “to mix Eastern spirituality with Western individualism, democracy, science, openness, and optimism” (“Where ‘California’ bubbled up,” The Economist). Taking a closer look now at the way Esalen in particular set about syncretizing “East” with “West,” we may be able to shine a light on a couple of key contradictions at the heart of this process. The attitude of Esalen cofounders Michael Murphy and Richard Price towards realizing their Human Potential project, was described in an article on American spirituality from a December 2007 issue of The Economist. The article explains:
[…] Murphy and Price didn’t want to import the Asian traditions wholesale. Mr Murphy had hated the conservative and hierarchical society that he saw in India, which Mr Price compared to his totalitarian experience in the mental asylum. They wanted to mix Eastern spirituality with Western individualism, democracy, science, openness, and optimism. In particular, they liked [Aldous] Huxley’s idea about “human potentialities”, and adopted the term.
The essential criticism to take up here I believe is with this notion that a “conservative and hierarchical society” of India, a kind of basic presumption of Orientalism, is somehow fundamentally “Eastern,” that it is somehow a wholesale aspect of an Asian tradition.
Implicit in this whole idea of mixing “East” and “West” I would argue, is the assumption that each hemispheric domain has special characteristics that the other lacks. Based on this passage in The Economist, one might assume the Esalen project characterized “The West” as being overly materialistic, or spiritually deficient in some way; whereas “The East,” perhaps more advanced in that respect, was by the same token a bit too collectivist, too anti-democratic, anti-scientific, closed off, pessimistic, etc. & hence this impetus for mingling abstractions of the two hemispheres such that the disadvantages of one might be tempered by the advantages of the other. Aside from being absurdly reductionist, firstly there is a massive problem with assuming that conservatism and hierarchicalism are classifiably Asian characteristics, or isolatable features of modern India; when such characteristics can in no way be separated out from, and in some sense can actually be attributed to, the effects of British imperialism. So not only do we have a negative characteristic being attributed to “The East” when, if anything, that characteristic should be attributed to “Western” colonial influence; also we have the implication that Asian traditions are comparatively not very liberal, not egalitarian, not individualistic when for the most part—taking into account specifically the “Eastern” traditions of say, Buddhism or Taoism—one could argue that exactly the opposite is the case.
Again the assumption is these ideas are all “Eastern” in so far as they are not “Western” so one would assume the distinction should hold up under scrutiny, but in fact it does not. Take say, the stereotypical notion that the “West” is more individualist, the “East” is more collectivist; that the “West” is more egalitarian, the “East” is more totalitarian. In fact, one finds all of these characteristics manifesting albeit in different capacities in different ways among traditions that belong to both “East” and “West.” This is why I feel the hemispheric distinction is useless, or is at least far less helpful than what I would argue is the more prominent factor in whether or not a religious tradition tends more towards the conservative or liberal, egalitarian or totalitarian side of the political spectrum.
It is the degree to which theism is present within a religious tradition.
One way I propose to illustrate this is by briefly sketching out some basic differences between certain Asian religious traditions that highlight the inadequacy of this “Eastern” category.
I believe the simplest way to do this is by describing what in essence makes Buddhism differ from Hinduism, as well as to highlight the uniquely atheistic elements within Taoist cosmology.
As Hinduism is itself a blanket term, almost as unhelpful as the term “Eastern,” I will have to limit myself here to engaging with those basics of Neo-Vedantism that Aldous Huxley was partial to; considering the influence this school of thought in particular would thus have had on the mystical proclivities of Esalen’s Human Potential Movement. I shall compare these elements of Hinduism with Buddhism in a nutshell, by first characterizing one as being significantly more theistic than the other. Furthermore Buddhism can be said to have grown out of Hinduism, in so far as Buddhism represented in a sense the rejection of conservative and hierarchical elements in society at that particular time. In so far as I understand, not to mention speaking in generalized, abstracted terms here, Hinduism had codified the cyclicity of cosmic processes; whereby a belief system that made law out of mystical concepts, such as the immanence of God or transmigration of the soul managed to impose rigid systems of hierarchy overtop of a metaphysic that was in essence fluid, establishing in this way a reign of what perhaps might be called spiritual permanence. Hence, Buddhism comes along with new insight into the nature of impermanence; the idea that even the metaphysics of immanence and transmigration are in turn, illusions of another fashion, that arise out of what in Buddhist cosmology is perceived to be the Absolute Principle, or Ground of All Being—namely—Emptiness; a realization that, needless to say, shattered the arbitrary presumptions and entitlements upon which authoritarianism sought to erect its hierarchical temple. Furthermore insight into Absolute Reality, what most religious traditions call God, but which Buddhism sees as going beyond any such ideations—insight into that; the nature of this Ground, was not the exclusive domain of Brahmins or a priest class, but available to any or all who would devote themselves to following a path towards enlightenment. (It also seems highly relevant to note that the Buddha neither made claims to his divinity nor professed himself to be a prophet, rather he seems to have viewed himself as but a teacher and philosopher, whose methods of advanced spirituality could be applied by any who wished to employ them.) In this way I feel its easy to see that the defining principles of Buddhism do not conform at all to stereotypical conceptions of oriental despotism, or any other kind of abstracted binary conception of irreducible qualities inherent to either the “East” or the “West.” Also I hope that in some way it shows how religious ideas traditionally conceived of as Asian, such as transmigration of the soul, the immanence of God, polytheism, etc. also coexist with Asian traditions of a definitely atheistic metaphysical quality, a nuance that seems to me like one of the first to vanish in these projects aiming to syncretize spirituality of the “East” and the “West.”
Moving on to another Asian religious tradition with distinctly atheistic qualities, we should note a few characteristics of Taoism. Again we have a cosmology with an Absolute Reality Principle or Ground of All Being, in this case called the Tao that, unlike in say Neo-Vedanta or Judaism, is not a Godhead but a depersonalized, non-anthropomorphic path or “Way.” In this fashion one would be incorrect to speak of the Tao as being divine or not divine, for the Tao is simply the Tao; it just is what it is. Accordingly this Ground of All Being, akin to Buddhist Emptiness or the pure potentiality of Formlessness gives rise to two fundamental principles underlying the energetic structure of the cosmos, essentially a Monad but divisible into the dichotomous elements of Yin and Yang. Although this emanation into duality leads ultimately into more and more complex binary forms such as archetypal masculine or feminine qualities, even the ethical qualifications of good and evil; at the core, within that immanent Ground of the Absolute, these reciprocals are conceived of as a continuous interplay between positive and negative energies strictly in an objective sense. Moreover following this path or Way then becomes like going with a natural flow—undirected but nevertheless significant; good because of the inevitable harmonies that arise from the synchronization of Being in accordance with nature. A radically important political principle in my view follows from this perspective, namely in reference to the unguided but nonetheless harmonious cycles of nature, a phenomenon that underlies the paradoxical notion of order arising out of chaos. Enforced order is indeed a kind of aberration, a usurpation and inversion of the natural order of things. Applied politically this is the kind of insight that gives rise to the idea that freedom “is best conceived not as a negative rejection of external restrictions but as a positive self-regulating form of responsible activity,” to quote prominent art historian, poet and anarchist Sir Herbert Read. The same political and moral principles underlie the famous opening lines of Henry David Thoreau’s classic of political philosophy, Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience where he states:
I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—“That government is best which governs not at all”. . .
It is an idea made explicit in the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism from over 2500 years ago; poetically put as such in Chapter 37 of the translation by Arthur Waley:
Tao never does;
Yet through it all things are done.
If the barons and kings would but posses themselves of it,
The ten thousand creatures would at once be transformed.
It’s insight of this particular character that I feel too often, perhaps deliberately gets lost in our East/West syncretic projects. Ether too much scientific materialism gets in to evaporate all spirituality from the atheistic metaphysic; or too much theism gets in to erode the subtle nuance of the Absolute Ground of Reality as Emptiness. Or any other number of syncretisms that unfortunately do not unify or unite, so much as they blur and destroy vast amounts of perennially important wisdom traditions under a blanket term of Westernization; branding Otherness as a project that is hip, fresh and “new.”
I don’t think this is an accident, that the process works out in such a way. As I have said before and, in some sense I mean this quite literally that,—beyond standard processes of commodification which should be familiar to anyone living under capitalism—there is in my estimation another, even more nefarious mechanism at play here; a more sinister and occult, but nonetheless demonstrably provable phenomenon. It is a process devoted to maintaining control over flows of information, vast amounts of data that can only be predictably managed by way of disseminating propaganda. This includes the use of so called “black” propaganda techniques, standard components in the contrivance of disinformation.
There are many interesting levels to this; so I am going to need to begin by defining my terms, starting with “information.” By extension this should in theory, clarify what I mean when I use the term “disinformation.”
To keep things simple, let me begin by limiting the scope of my definition to the admittedly abstract but nonetheless straightforward idea, that information can be thought of as the resolution of uncertainty. This is from what I understand, a classic formulation originally put forward by the mathematician Claude Shannon. In addition to this, the idea of information as “the resolution of uncertainty,” I want to further explore this concept through the thinking of cyberneticist Gregory Bateson.
In fact, focusing on Gregory Bateson at present marks an important transition for the purposes of this essay, as the rest of what I am trying to communication up to the pending conclusion, hinges on the work of Gregory Bateson.
Bateson famously defined information as “difference which makes a difference,” an idea that in comparison to Claude Shannon’s definition, feels rather cryptic. The idea comes off more intuitively however when put in context, so a brief foray into the lecture from which this definition originated should prove illuminating.
The lecture, called Form, Substance and Difference, was delivered in 1970 in commemoration of Alfred Korzybski, an independent scholar known for developing a field called General Semantics. A famous dictum of General Semantics is, “The map is not the territory,” an analogy in reference to the concept of signifier and signified; or the distinction between objects and their symbols. This analogy will be necessary if we are to follow Bateson’s abstract logic in defining difference, as well as information as “difference which makes a difference.” Bateson begins by asking what it might be that bridges the gap between “territory” and “map.” He states:
“What is it in the territory that gets onto the map?” We know the territory does not get onto the map. That is the central point about which we here are all agreed. Now, if the territory were uniform, nothing would get onto the map except its boundaries, which are the points at which it ceases to be uniform against some large matrix. What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever. Differences are the things that get onto a map.
But what is a difference? A difference is a very peculiar and obscure concept. It is certainly not a thing or an event. This piece of paper is different from the wood of this lectern. There are many differences between them—of color, texture, shape, etc. But if we start to ask about the localization of those differences, we get into trouble. Obviously the difference between the paper and the wood is not in the paper; it is not in the wood; it is obviously not in the space between them, and it is obviously not in the time between them. (Difference which occurs across time is what we call “change.”)
A difference, then, is an abstract matter.
The “map” organizes the raw data of the “territory” into an abstract form of knowledge. Both the data of the “territory” and the knowledge of the “map” are forms of information, but one is distinct from the other due to a level of abstraction. This level of abstraction differentiates matter from mind.
Bateson then continues:
I suggest to you, now, that the word “idea,” in its most elementary sense, is synonymous with “difference.” Kant, in the Critique of Judgment—if I understand him correctly—asserts that the most elementary aesthetic act is the selection of a fact. He argues that in a piece of chalk there are an infinite number of potential facts. The Ding an sich, the piece of chalk, can never enter into communication or mental processes because of this infinitude. The sensory receptors cannot accept it; they filter it out. What they do is to select certain facts out of a piece of chalk, which then become, in modern terminology, information.
I suggest that Kant’s statement can be modified to say that there is an infinite number of differences around and within the piece of chalk. There are differences between the chalk and the rest of the universe, between the chalk and the sun or the moon. And within the piece of chalk, there is for every molecule an infinite number of differences between its location and the locations in which it might have been. Of this infinitude, we select a very limited number, which become information. In fact, what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference. . .
If we return for a moment to the classical definition of information as the resolution of uncertainty, we can make a comparison that should help to clarify what Bateson is saying. His “infinite number of differences” we can equate with uncertainty, the resolution of which comes from discerning “a very limited number” of differences out of an infinite pool. Again this is a process of discernment or, to return to the map and territory metaphor, a transformation of data into knowledge. Here the idea of transformation is key because it represents the difference being made in the “difference which makes a difference,” as “make a difference” basically means “to cause a change.” This change is interesting because it is essentially a function of itself, a metafunction if you will; the differentiation of difference. This permits for the logic of paradox in understanding that, while data and knowledge are both forms of information, what binds them together is the same property that divides them into classes apart, that is to say, difference.
If then, we can speak of information in this abstract way as being “difference which makes a difference,” by the same token I propose that the concept of disinformation be understood in precisely the same way, although with the slight distinction of being “difference which makes no difference.” This is an idea constructed similarly out of a paradox, but one which I hope to demonstrate, also makes a fair bit of sense in the abstract.
Another way to put it might be to say that disinformation is a difference which reinforces sameness. In this way we could speak of disinformation as a process whereby one is deceived into believing that uncertainty has been resolved, when in fact one remains in a state of uncertainty. Interestingly enough in this kind of inverted condition, grasping after actual information will produce a feeling of cognitive dissonance, where information that would normally resolve uncertainty has the opposite effect of making one feel increasingly uncertain.
It may be appropriate to speak of this condition as a schismogenic state, in which the property that distinguishes uncertainty from information becomes inverted. This condition once introduced can actually be reinforced, to the point where an inverse quality will come to be naturally perceived as the opposite, i.e. lies become true. No doubt this phenomenon forms the basis of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels famous saying that a lie repeated often enough will eventually become adopted for the truth.
I have used the metaphor “carrot on a stick” often enough throughout this essay, for good reason. It is a fitting analogy for the way that disinformation operates, not to mention a classic symbol of illusion employed for purposes of manipulation. I have repeatedly applied this analogy to describe what I believe lies at the heart of New Age spirituality, namely a well-wrought artifact of spiritual disinformation, if you will. For emphasis I will repeat that I find this to be the overlaying of a teleological illusion (i.e. the whole idea of Human Potential) onto ancient wisdom traditions that, based as they are on the perennial understanding of cyclical processes, contain metaphysical ideas professing exactly the opposite. The truly important information, the bit that “makes a difference” has been negated.
New Age appears countercultural; seems, in so far as its “new” and alternative, to be a departure from the mainstream when in point of fact it’s fundamentally no different from the status quo; or at least in no way that really “makes a difference,” hence, a “difference which makes no difference.”
This bears out in a number of ways. One example might be the way the anti-materialistic ethos of “Eastern” philosophies get subverted, in how say, one needs to purchase tickets to an expensive seminar just to be able to learn about them. Or another major example of this, especially pertinent to the 1960s but indeed no less relevant now, is the way that young mystics get deluded into seeking after spiritual knowledge exclusively through the usage of psychedelic drugs. The brilliant scholar Theodore Roszak, back in 1968 already made a point of this in his assessment of Timothy Leary; a figure with ties to Esalen, who perhaps more than any other figure from this particular time, embodied the way spiritual disinformation spread by way of conflating psychedelic drugs with a new form of religion.
Theodore Roszak was actually the man who coined the phrase counterculture in what is in my view a masterpiece of scholarship, his 1968 book The Making of a Counter Culture. In a chapter titled “The Counterfeit Infinity,” Roszak critiques Leary’s project, noting the potential inversion of spirituality for materialism as “ironic in the extreme, because one could make an excellent case that the revolution which Leary purports to be leading is the most lugubrious of illusions.” Especially pertinent to the concerns of this essay, Roszak locates Leary’s project within the same pattern of teleological sleight of hand that I have tried to argue makes up the heart of New Age—the idea of Human Potential as inspired by the inverted wisdom of that other immensely important “spiritual materialist” Aldous Huxley. Roszak writes:
By way of a mystic religiosity, Leary has succeeded in convincing vast numbers of the young that his “neurological politics” must function as an integral, if not a central, factor in their dissenting culture. “The LSD kick is a spiritual ecstasy. The LSD trip is a religious pilgrimage.” Psychedelic experience is the way “to groove to the music of God’s great song.”
But the promise of nirvana is not all. Leary has begun of late to assimilate the psychedelics to a bizarre form of psychic Darwinism which admits the tripper to a “new race” still in the process of evolution. LSD, he claims, is the “sacrament that will put you in touch with the ancient two million year old wisdom inside you”; it frees one “to go on to the next stage, which is the evolutionary timelessness, the ancient reincarnation thing that we always carry inside.”
There is, I would like to suggest, almost an air of behaviorist operant conditioning about Leary’s project. It is as if one of the major, if not the major objective of his project was to syncretize if you will, or intimately associate the psychedelic experience with the mystical vision; to make synonymous with the sacrament the mystery itself. Blending these two distinctions into one as I have argued earlier in this essay, is in my view akin to a disinformation process whereby uncertainty, under the guise of certitude, displaces what were otherwise meaningful differences with a novel “difference which makes no difference.” For the process to be meaningful I gather; if there was to be a meaningful synthesis between two rather oppositional forms of knowledge like say, science and mysticism; unless the key differences that made one element distinct from the other remained preserved, as in perhaps a reciprocal form of dualism; it seems to me that the essence of both would eventually become corrupted overtime, such that what used to be a defining characteristic of one, blurs into the other resulting effectively in the establishment of meaningless uniformity. This is the essence of what I was trying to get at by criticizing the reductionist logic of boiling cultural traditions down to a matter of “East” and “West,” all in the name of a project of “unification” ultimately masking the underlying imperial policy of cultural subordination.
This leaves us in a position of speculating as to the possibility of whether or not unity could ever actually be achieved without this undesirable by product of enforced conformity. The answer I suspect is to be found crucially, in the quality of transformation between a “difference which makes a difference” and a “difference which makes no difference;” the function of change in the resolution of uncertainty into information, and the maintenance of uncertainty in the contrivance of disinformation. Perhaps we attain here to a level of abstraction once removed from the idea of information/disinformation to a more metaphysical realm where this distinction translates into tension between reality/illusion. I think it will be interesting to return to Theodore Roszak here, who developed a similar idea by way of an analogy in The Making of a Counter Culture, one that ironically takes on the form of a comparison between good and bad “magic.” The way he uses the term seems to correlate with advanced mental work of various sorts, such as the arcane formulations of theoretical mathematicians say, or the cryptic symbolism of visionary poets. Another way he employs the term is in how this advanced mental work may inform a product of some kind, or a performance or ritual that on the one hand could be used to enlighten the individuals of a community, or on the other hand to deceive them. As Roszak writes:
. . . there is one magic that seeks to open and vitalize the mind, another that seeks to diminish and delude. […] There are mysteries which, like the mysteries of state, are no better than dirty secrets; but there are also mysteries which are encountered by the community (if such exists) in a stance of radical equality, and which are meant to be shared in for the purpose of enriching life by experiences of awe and splendor.
Myth, or drama or even, media let’s say, is a good example of an ambiguous form of this kind of “magic.” Myth, when interpreted metaphorically, can lead to fantastic insight into the imagination, or the archetypal structure of the human mind whereas literal interpretations just as soon lead us into intense dogmatic confusion, or close-minded compliancy. By the same token everyone is familiar with the difference between movies or books that “make us think” as opposed to the kind of mindless entertainment we desire to consume just in order to “escape.” Whatever makes up in particular this qualitative difference is what I am trying to get at with the idea of “magic,” or advanced mental constructions that variously enlighten or deceive.
Roszak further explores this dichotomy by asking what the difference might be between cultures based on the scientific world view compared with the mystical one, between societies that defer to the expertise of technocrats and those which defer to the otherworldly visions of the shaman. “The difference is real and it is critical,” he says.
It requires that we make a distinction between good and bad magic—a line that can be crossed in any culture, primitive or civilized, and which has been crossed in ours with the advent of the technocracy.
The essence of good magic—magic as it is practised by the shaman and the artist—is that it seeks always to make available to all the full power of the magician’s experience. While the shaman may be one especially elected and empowered, his role is to introduce his people to the sacramental presences that have found him out and transformed him into their agent. His peculiar gift confers responsibility, not privilege. Similarly, the artist lays his work before the community in the hope that through it, as through a window, the reality he has fathomed will be witnessed by all who give attention.
There is a political, specifically egalitarian aspect to the way in which the shaman’s role fits together with the rest of the community. This is in opposition to the way a practitioner of “bad magic” functions. As Roszak explains:
Good magic opens the mysteries to all; bad magic seeks simply to mystify. The object of the bad magician is to monopolize knowledge of the hidden reality (or simply to counterfeit it) and to use the monopoly to befuddle or cow. The bad magician—in the form of the priest or the expert—strives to achieve the selfish advantage of status or reward precisely by restricting access to the great powers he purports to control.
I would like to bring this already overlong essay to a close by returning to the topic of Investigative Poetry.
It is unfortunately one of the essential characteristics of disinformation, or of illusion more broadly, that it will be in some sense almost indistinguishable from reality or the “truth.” For this reason I am of the opinion that Investigative Poetry may prove a valuable tool in our struggle to illuminate vast networks of ideological control. It challenges the ideological notion that truth comes in but one form, that is to say through the medium of non-fiction, or “journalism”; and indeed, never has there been a notion more self-serving to the interests of disinforming propaganda than this.
Disinformation only succeeds where we trust the medium through which the message is received; or where we have lost our ability to resolve uncertainty independently; or where perhaps we have come to believe that the only thing in life that is ever actually certain is uncertainty. The last proposition is a paradox of course, but one that I hope reiterates the function of mystery, or the logical paradox of circularity that characterizes “this strange piece of work that a man is.”
Finally I will close with not a statement, but a question.
Why did Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek decide to name the band they would go on to form with Robby Krieger and John Densmore The Doors, was it in reference to William Blake, or Aldous Huxley?
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