The Weird World of Occult America -- How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
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Horowitz believes that this historical partnership between the occult and progressive politics has been consistent up to the present. He convincingly knocks down the trendy idea that the Third Reich was an occult phenomenon. “However tantalizing some may find it to conceive of Hitler as a practitioner of black magic,” Horowitz writes, “it is fantasy.” It turns out Hitler had no more patience for ancient Vedic philosophy or Aryan mysticism than he did for Marxism. He just thought the Indian symbol of karma and rebirth looked good on uniforms.
If Occult America is hurt by anything, it is its own ambition. By trying to cover the grand sweep of American history in less than 300 pages, the book is inevitably dense and busy with characters, movements, and ideas constantly being introduced, sketched, and pulled away. There is a good reason that Catherine Albanese’s far more comprehensive work, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion—which is changing the way scholars tell the history of American religion—runs nearly 650 pages. Without much of a chronological or thematic structure, Occult America often reads more like an encyclopedia than a narrative. (But an encyclopedia that’s missing a few pages: Where’s Wilhelm Reich? Robert Anton Wilson? L. Ron Hubbard?) Horowitz’s account of the Ouija board is fascinating, as is the story of Gandhi’s early involvement with Theosophy. But the book would have benefited from a shorter timeframe or a tighter thematic focus.
Because he is busy covering so much ground, Horowitz never really pauses to ask or explore the larger questions behind his history. Why have Americans been continually drawn to and inspired by this unruly family of philosophies? Why did Spiritualism sweep America, and then the globe, in the nineteenth century? As a veteran and respected voice for esoteric ideas, Horowitz understands their appeal better than most. But in Occult America, he settles for too little.
These ideas and movements have existed and continue to thrive, he writes, for the same reason as any religion: because they provide people with “some of the most moving and deeply affecting experiences of their lives.” It is an answer that is as simple as it is unassailable.