Prophets of a New Age

Counterculture and the Politics of Hope
By Martin Green
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-034-2

Summary

Say “New Age” and many people think first of candles, crystals, incense, and Tarot cards. But this image, according to Martin Green, is a mere caricature of important cultural movements of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as our own era, affecting art, politics, religion, and everyday culture. These “New Ages” are pivotal eras that share a preoccupation with political change, experimental art, new ideas about medicine, sex, primitivism, and the familiar axis of love/nature/peace/spirituality. Martin Green analyzes the work and influence of such notables as Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, William Blake and D. H. Lawrence, Gary Snyder, Annie Besant, Rachel Carson, and Carl Jung, among many others. The “ideas, icons, myths, and rituals” of these New Age prophets have left a lasting imprint on our current ideas. Green presents an immense amount of diverse material in a coherent, imaginative, and convincing form.

About the Author

Martin Green (1932–2010) was born in England. He was a writer, playwright, editor, and publisher. His numerous books explore psychoanalysis, philosophical nonviolence, countercultures, and adventure, among other social and intellectual topics.

Acknowledgments

Introduction: A Declaration of Provenance and Purpose

1: Invitation to a New Age

2: Prophetic Voices: 1880–1910

3: Gandhi’s London

4: Then and Now

5: Tom Paine’s Philadelphia

6: Then and Now

7: Beginning and End of Hope

8: Prophetic Voices Again

9: Our Own New Age

10: Gary Snyder’s California

11: Conclusion

Notes on the Text

Bibliography

Index

From the Introduction: A Declaration of Provenance and Purpose

Although I strike a quasi-prophetic pose in writing this book, I know no better than anyone else what will happen at the turn of the century and the turn of the millennium. But I can show some striking similarities between our New Agers and their predecessors, between our situation in the 1990s and theirs in 1890 and 1790—defining the New Age type each time as people who see radical degeneration going on around them, but also see the possibility of a radically new life for anyone courageous enough to embrace it.

Moreover, I can show that the 1890s was a crucial decade for the century that followed and that the 1790s was a crucial decade for the nineteenth century. Each century looks back to a New Age as its moral dowry and inheritance. No matter how whimsical or comical that New Age may seem in retrospect, it contains society’s store of hope, even after the hope has been defeated as a practical proposition.

How many people today are living on their memories of the 1960s’ days of hope! (Even those who revile the sixties still find the topic absorbing.) Some sociologists are saying that it is since 1960 that in advanced industrial societies the postmaterialists—those who live by a version of New Age ideas—have grown to be a significant element. My starting point resembles that of those sociologists, though the course of my inquiry is quite different.

If the New Age efforts of the 1790s and the 1890s constituted a source of moral energy transmitted to the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, then for our twenty-first century, our millennium, we have a need to build a New Age at least as strong as theirs. So a look at historical parallels may help us.

I shall also be declaring my sense of where, within our own New Age, we could profitably invest our energies—in whom we should invest our hope. There are in fact heroes and prophets among us, and even if the current venture in civilization cannot be saved, we can go out in style and in the best of company, if we choose. There is as much courage today, as much wit and will power, as much scope of mind and heart, as ever was to be found in the cultural treasury.

From Chapter 1: Invitation to a New Age

New Age Realism

Today we probably associate “New Age” with 1960s outdoor concerts, like Woodstock and Altamont, the political activities of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, drugs and flower children. Of really contemporary phenomena, we associate it with occultism and the scientistic optimism of the Aquarian Conspiracy, to borrow Marilyn Ferguson’s phrase.

With those associations, an almost infinite perspectiveis already opening up before us, along with phrases that blur into “New Age” like “counterculture” and “the sixties” and “Californian.” To make a single pattern out of all those—that way madness lies. I shall attempt to introduce some order into this multiplicity by first using the phrase as it was used in relation to the 1880–1910 period. So I shall describe that New Age (in the next chapter) and then the one at the end of the eighteenth century, before applying the term to the twentieth century.

This tactic involves us in some discrepancies because the term was applied rather differently in the various cases—for instance, at the end of the nineteenth century the focus was not so much on mass phenomena and media events as it was later; it was more on book-described ideas, and on individuals and small groups. However, my tactic has the advantage of bringing out, in the later period, features that we can “take seriously”—phenomena that we can meet in the spirit in which they offer themselves. Above all, the alignment of the three periods, as New Ages, is very suggestive from a historical point of view.

First of all, I must situate New Agers among other kinds of radicals. All New Ages, including the nineteenth-century one, are times of radicalism, and so in their attitude to the status quo are cynical and angry. They are motivated by passionate dissatisfaction, and aim at enormous changes. Thus they have much in common with left- and right-wing radicalism or revolutionism. (“New Age” means a period when all kinds of radicals are active, though it also means New Age radicals as distinct from other kinds—words do have that annoying way of confusing issues.) New Ages are then charged with indignation, and some of their members are ready to employ violence. Even the cause of ecology today, preeminently a New Age issue, has had its exponent of violence, in Edward Abbey. For if their solutions tend toward the gentle, the lyrical, or the sacrificial, the New Agers’ problems are the same as those of violent revolutionaries.

Thus, though I have described New Age realism in terms of hope, optimism, and naivete, of course any strong or clear mind grows by acquiring other, sometimes opposite qualities—without necessarily sacrificing its original character. New Agers do not live in a fools’ paradise. I will quote a sentence from Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the New Age voices of our own time, here discussing her own early fiction, and calling its New Age character romantic: “I am still a romantic, no doubt about that, and glad of it, but the candor and simplicity of [Le Guin’s early work] has gradually become something harder, stronger, and more complex.” Thus one can remain naive even while absorbing some opposite, “sophisticated” wisdom. The hopeful New Ager has more in common with the angry revolutionary than with ordinary people.

Among the dramatic political events of the nineteenth-century New Age movement we can list the attacks by terrorists or anarchists on heads of state (King Umberto of Italy and President McKinley) and heads of huge commercial corporations; the Boer War; and the 1905 Revolution in Russia. All of these were forms of violent political action. All of them failed; the revolutionaries in Russia, the anti-imperialists in South Africa, and the various terrorist groups were defeated and punished. But these events were still felt to be signs of the breakup of immense immobilities (empires) that had seemed eternal—those sharp reports that announce the melting of icebergs in the spring. The election of the Liberal Party to power in 1906, with a large majority, including a lot of members new to the House of Commons, was a promise of change within the British Empire that corresponded to Gorbachev’s promise of change in Russia today.

Exactly what period in the twentieth century are we comparing to that nineteenth-century New Age? To fix the exact chronological limits of any historical period is something of a convention, a formal or aesthetic device. Moreover, New Age phenomena occur in all periods; we use the phrase only when they are unusually concentrated; and certainly what happens soon before or soon after the dates I give may be just as relevant to my argument as what happens within them. Nevertheless, it is worth trying to be clear-cut within the limits of possibility, to save us from drowning in cases, half like each other, half unlike.