How a small occult publisher changed America

Discussion in 'Media' started by Thomas, Dec 12, 2017.

  1. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    From World-Wide Religious News

    Donald Weiser’s bookstore ... in the late 60s, there was no other place.

    Weiser’s New York store sold occult books. Traditions, Magick, Astrology and astral projection, Tarot, the Secrets of Egypt, Gnosticism, Spirit Channeling, the gurus of the East. The sign out front said “esoterica” and “orientalia.”

    Donald Weiser died in April this year, aged 89. His death was little noted (an item in Publishers Weekly and an intimate memorial with friends and family). The truth is, though, that Weiser and his book business changed the religious landscape in America.

    Religious studies professor Catherine Albanese argues the occult — sometimes called “metaphysical religion,” sometimes “New Thought” or “New Age” — is a critical but ignored part of the country’s history of spiritual seeking. “Metaphysical religion,” Albanese writes, “is at least as important as evangelicalism in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history.”

    Donald Weiser was raised in his father Samuel’s New York City bookstore. The Weisers were antiquarians. The occult was a specialty. When Donald took over the business in the 1950s, he decided to focus on occult books exclusively. He bought up the private libraries of collectors, especially in and around New York, and sold to other collectors. He did a good business in rare books.

    He soon noticed, though, that there was another, untapped market for occult literature. Weiser’s store was attracting Wall Street brokers interested in practical applications of magic, psychologists who used palmistry, and ad executives dabbling in astral projection. There were serious devotees of voodoo and witchcraft who wanted books. There were soldiers returning from Korea and Japan who came into the store asking about English-language literature on Buddhism and Hinduism and, soon, hippie kids who wanted to know about astrology and Kabbalah.

    His first publication was a ’50s edition of Crowley’s “Equinox of the Gods.” It was just the beginning. Weiser was soon publishing about 15 titles a year. They were cheap but high-quality re-prints of out-of-copyright titles. Weiser became the supply source for an occultist far beyond New York City. He soon was distributing his new titles to small, independent bookstores on the other side of the country. The biggest market for occult books were in San Diego and San Francisco.

    It was enough that the booksellers associations came up with a category for these books, officially designating them “New Age.”

    People “discovered themselves in print to be part of the New Age movement,” Albanese writes in her history of American occultism. When they did, “their ranks, seemingly overnight, swelled.”

    The mainstream publishing houses noticed the swelling ranks of New Age books and, more importantly, New Age book-buyers. It was a whole new market. The publishers moved quickly to get something to sell in this category. Several presses started New Age imprints. Warner started Warner-Destiny. The big publishers each looked for specialists who knew something about the occult, to help them publish books that would sell.

    The mainstream publishers had more access to more bookstores, with a distribution network that stretched out from New York to all the urban centers in America. That broader network meant a lot more sales than an independent publisher like Weiser had ever seen. “Pyramid Power,” by Max Toth and Greg Neilsen, promising to reveal the “secret energy of the ancients,” sold 100,000 copies the first year. “Pyramid Power” went on to sell more than one million copies.

    Another hit was a book about astrology in the Bible, “To Rule Both Day and Night,” written by Joel Dobin, a Reformed rabbi educated at Princeton. The mainstream success was enough to launch an independent publisher, Inner Traditions.

    In the next decade, there was a notable increase of people who identified with occult beliefs. In their polling, Gallup found the number of people who believed there were mediums who could communicate with departed spirits increased 10 points in the 1990s. Belief in witches went up by 12 points. Half of Americans said they believed in extra-sensory perception and almost a third said they believed in clairvoyance. As one put it, “now everybody’s mother-in-law is into tarot.”

    There are multiple explanations for this cultural shift, a change in the zeitgeist. The turn of a new decade brought out new anxieties, new desires, and new spiritual longings. For the founder of Inner Traditions, a longtime member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an occult group that follows Aleister Crowley, the belief is that a “spiritual hierarchy” is “looking to advance humanity.”

    Maybe there was a new interest in the occult. Or maybe people have, all along, felt like they had these half-articulated questions about the ultimate nature of reality and just never had access to the occult answers.

    Today, the occult books that were once nearly impossible to find are readily available throughout America. Books on magick, Wicca, Gnosticism, Egyptology, Thelema, might technically be “esoterica,” but really they are available wherever books are sold. Weiser was kind of an eccentric figure, a little known, independent publisher. But he and the young people who trained with him made these once-strange options available to every spiritual seeker.

    +++

    In the UK we have Watkins Books. Established over 100 years ago, Watkin's is one of the world's oldest and leading independent bookshops specialising in new and antiquarian titles in the Mind, Body, Spirit field. I haunted this shop when I discovered the Perennial Philosophy, the only place where I could find the complete works of René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon and others.
     
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  2. Craz

    Craz Active Member

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    When I lived in London during the 70s & 80s I spent hours in Watkins, particularly in the second hand section downstairs.
    A seekers paradise.
     
  3. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    Seems when you guys kicked us across the pond we brought it with us...

    For Americans who believed in liberal social and religious ideals, the messages emanating from occult movements - the equality of all religions and people, the right of ordinary people to devise their own spiritual path, the therapeutic properties of faith - were perhaps more enthralling than any supernatural claims.

    The American occult was a vehicle that helped popularize today’ s widespread ideals of religious universality. It also inspired wellness movements that exist across the mainstream, from positive-thinking and meditation, to 12-step programs and natural medicine. It is why your health insurance carrier is likely to pay for acupuncture and chiropractic.

    But it is more than all that: Today’s atmosphere of religious experiment and the live-and-let-live attitude that most Americans take toward their neighbor’ s religion are rooted in this early, fervent period of spiritual adventure that made every person’ s search for meaning seem like a birthright. In this way, occult America changed our world.

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mitch-horowitz/the-occult-in-american-history_b_774765.html
     
  4. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    If there were ways to spy or control...our CIA wanted to know... https://newrepublic.com/article/142268/united-states-government-embraced-occult

    Our White House was into it long before Nancy Reagan... http://www.firstladies.org/blog/first-ladies-the-occult-seances-and-spiritualists-part-1/

    Coincidence, Causation, Correlation....

    I see a venn diagram of similar interests in New Thought, New Age, and Metaphysics... but not all the same..

    And as far as "at least as important as evangelical..." I don't see how that is true...the percentage of folks may have increased...but not near as much as evangelicals and not even close in proportion... In general new age folk are less educated, unmarried and believe in science, evolution, allowing women's right to choose, accepting of GLTBQ lifestyles....I guess if anything the new age folk have helped keep the conservative evangelicals from completely running the country.

    http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-family/new-age/

    http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/
     
  5. StevePame

    StevePame Administrator

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    Very interesting thread.
     
  6. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Hey, Craz! We might have been there at the same time.

    I hung out downstairs, then head to the left, then the back and the right of the alcove there. Perennial Philosophy was on the right.

    Small world ... I sometimes wonder if one day we'll discover we're all connected through a series of encounters, conscious or otherwise.
     
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  7. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Interesting. My experience of the occult schools is somewhat different. very hierarchical, very organised.

    Wha? o_O This is a markedly different picture than the one you usually paint for me ... Refreshing ...
     
  8. Craz

    Craz Active Member

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    It would not surprise me. After all we are all living on a very small ball in an enormous universe.

    Perusing the books there opened me up to so much(long before the internet).
    I haven't been there in decades, I am now in Glastonbury which has bunch of similar bookshops as well as a specialised library. http://libraryofavalon.org.uk/

    However, Watkins is still Watkins.
    Is Watkins still the same?
    That whole road, Cecil Court has interesting collectors shops as well.

    Cheers
     
  9. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    [QUOTE="Thomas]

    Wha? o_O This is a markedly different picture than the one you usually paint for me ... Refreshing ...[/QUOTE]that is what the article said... Forget about church shootings, segregated Sundays, and whitewashed support of alleged pedophile senate candidates
     
  10. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I will if you will! :D
     
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  11. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I got so inspired in there I bought the same book twice on more than one occasion!

    Looks it ... haven't been in a long while, though. In fact I haven't been down Cecil Court for a long time either. The whole area's changed, it's all residential round there now.
     
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  12. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    The Wind and the Lion is one of my 'soppy favourite' films — a guilt secret. But it has some great lines, and some interesting things to say about America — 2.15 in on this clip arrives at the nub.

    +++

    I had considered some comments on the Occult/Estoteric scene, although I am far removed from that these days.

    But what did occur is, stuff goes across the pond from here to there and then, some of it washes back again. And, inevitably, what washes back, driven by commercial exploitation, is probably a poor representation of what's going on.

    I am of the opinion that Occult and Esoteric studies in Europe is and has always been ahead of the curve compared to the US and UK, although that highlights a marked distinction in approach. From what I understand France has always been at the forefront and I believe remains to. Certainly in the esoteric aspects of the Sophia Perennis, French esoterists have made significant contributions.

    Once any epistemological system passes out of its own close community into the wider world, an inevitable 'free-for-all' comes into play. Commercial marketeers see opportunity, and the result is consumer-oriented packaging and, to a greater or lesser degree, exploitation.

    Mindfulness meditation is a big deal here, although New Scientist has run articles on the psychological risks (a number of cases of severe depression), and also run experiments to show that listening to relaxing/classical music, reading poetry or even going for a walk has much the same beneficial effect.

    It seems the Traditions have their '15 minutes of fame', become fashionable and a 'fad'. TM and various guru-isms, Scientology, Buddhism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Wicca and the like, while the traditional schools just shake their heads and offer sagacious and knowing smiles. Theosophy and Masonry are further examples of how the traditions are repackaged.

    Of the two most significant players in the Sophia Perennis of the last century — René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon – the former converted to a Sufi school of Islam, became a Sheikh and went east, settling anonymously into a quiet back-street in Cairo. The latter also became a Sheikh, went west, and founded something of a cult centred on himself in America which eventually became mired in accusations of sexual impropriety.

    I think Wil touches on a salient point when he says:
    'Today’s atmosphere of religious experiment ... live-and-let-live attitude ... spiritual adventure ... seem like a birthright.'
    I think it's a spot-on comment.

    The upside is as it is: New World, New Beginning, Clean Sheet ...

    But with freedom comes responsibility ....

    Look at the Bible Tract printing houses of the early US era. The marketing of the Tarot later on. Notoriously, one of the major games companies marketed the ouija board as a childs' game. Even if the idea of 'channeling' is a complete nonsense, there are still psychological risks involved, and if not nonsense, then it's even more dangerous...

    Traditional tools like the Tarot, like Astrology, meditation, yoga, etc., become removed from their contextual discipline and understandings and are marketed like any other type of consumer goods, with the same 'guarantees' and 'promises'. I remember finding a teach-yourself book of koans, with the koan and the answer, as if by learning the answer one becomes enlightened ...

    If there's a rich seam of 'hellfire-n-brimstone' preaching, of 'short-earth' creationism et al, it's because there's a desire for it in the American psyche, and there are those ready to play to that. Look at 'The Rapture' genre ... a huge publishing phenomena, so big it skewed the publishing world's statistics.

    Fifty Shades of Grey, The DaVinci Code — what do they have in common beside enormous sales? They're both really quite badly written. And that's putting it politely. But they sell because people lap up what they want to believe.

    +++

    The downside is that in consumer society we're told it's our birthright, we're sold on it: Because You're Worth It, as L'Oreál says. And then the purveyors find ways of packaging the unattainable for those who want in but don't see the need to make an effort.

    It's a bit like the Haight-Asbury phenomena. In '66 it promised every possibility of a creative counter-culture. The media exposed Haight-Ashbury to enormous attention and popularised the 'Hippie' counterculture. Then come the tourists; the teenagers and college students drawn to a utopia; middle-class vacationers; etc. The inevitable influx of voyeurs, drifters, chancers, grifters ... Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, crime.

    By late '67, it was all over.

    (Data from wiki)

    +++

    The occult should always remain in the shadows, on the margins. The Weisners and Watkins of this world should remain fringe because the content and the audience is fringe. Only when the Occult and Esoteric becomes entertainment and escapism does it enter the centre ground, otherwise it's just too hard.
     
  13. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    Otherwise it is just to hard...

    The crux of the biscuit... Very few have the discipline for any belief system here... We ain't gonna be beating carpets or ringing out laundry.. We have machines for that

    Religion, spirituality... Getting fit or getting to heaven... You got an app for that?
     

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