The New New Age
The movement pulls away from the mainstream and gets apocalyptic
By: JAMES PARKER
“In the United States,” wrote novelist and poet Jim Harrison in 1976, “it is a curious habit of ours to wait for the future when it has happened already.” Thirty years on, how much deeper is that swoon of postponement, and how much more pressing the crisis. In weather systems, in belief systems, the planet condenses with rage; the blandest recital of the facts can shake the air like a Yeatsian prophecy. Faces averted, we peck out text messages. At the political level the most complex issues are debated in the style of barking dogs, while at the counter of your local Starbucks a man is placing an order as nuanced and sophisticated as a 17th-century sonnet. And on the street the Hummers roll, driven by small, blond college girls, as if America had invaded itself.
But if the future won’t stop happening, neither will the past. Because here’s both the good news and the bad: the ’60s never ended. That decade’s chaotic drive toward collective rebirth — stalled, dissipated, betrayed, backlashed, and broken down — was not (it turns out) the endpoint, but the augury. “The Sixties,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin), by phone from New York City, “were an attempted voyage of initiation on a mass-cultural level, but at that point it couldn’t be completed. The maps weren’t there, there were no guides, and a lot of people kind of lost it.” Pinchbeck, a thirtysomething former journalist who has transformed himself — with the help of mind-ripping pharmaceuticals and organic hallucinogens like iboga and ayahuasca — into a multi-disciplinary critic of the “design problems” in Western civilization, is standing by for the next stage. “There’s some kind of process of assimilation that required those currents which came out so powerfully in the ’60s then to go underground and become subliminal,” he says. “But they’ve had a major effect on people in the West, whether through access to indigenous shamanism or in the extraordinary growth of yoga, and in a way they’ve been preparing the container so that if we were to go through another kind of initiatory level, there would be people ready to hold it together.”
Shamanism? Yoga? Welcome to the New New Age — the just-in-time resurgence of the holistic, anti-materialist worldview, garbed in esoterica, brandishing its own style of drugs and music. And brace yourself for a major paradigm shift: at the vanguard of the armies of transformation is … Sting! “Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012,” he blurbs on the book jacket, “is a dazzling kaleidoscopic journey through the quixotic hinterlands of consciousness.” Yes indeed, someone got his message in a bottle. “I became friends with Sting after my last book [Breaking Open the Head],” says Pinchbeck. “He got in touch with me and I actually stayed with him in his house in Italy.
“He’s had contact with indigenous shamanism, and he’s aware of the importance of the material. He’s kind of like an elder statesman, and he’s been giving me a lot of support.”
The sins of the old New Age, of course, are still with us: Celtic muzak, little polished rune-rocks, bumper stickers that say THE GODDESS IS ALIVE AND MAGIC IS IN THE AIR! Seeking balm for the psychic wounds they had sustained in the ’60s, ex-hippies opted en masse for a sort of consoling and watered-down paganism: ancient energies were domesticated, to the point where almost anyone could have a print from the Mahbarata on their kitchen wall, or an Odinist living downstairs. “The original New Age was a little bit on the flimsy side,” says Pinchbeck. “Channelling, UFOs … all that stuff was kind of floating out there. What I’m trying to do with the new book is to show that it’s possible for someone with a rational modern intellect to go through this material in a reasonable way, and to integrate Western philosophy with this shamanic/psychedelic worldview.”
What most viscerally separates the New New Agers from the old is their crisp and eager apprehension of imminent system crash — what our inheritors, stumping for food in the poisoned mud flats, may well call The Great Unraveling. Take, for example, the words of eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, in a recent interview. Asked if he truly wants civilization as we know it to fall, Jensen responds: “If civilization had come down 200 years ago, the people who live here would still be able to support themselves. But if it comes down in another 30 years, 50 years, 60 years … So even from the purely selfish human perspective, yeah, it would be good for civilization to end. The sooner this civilization goes, the better, because there’ll be MORE LEFT.”
Jensen gave this interview to Arthur magazine, a lavishly appointed free bimonthly out of LA whose columnists include Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Since October 2002, Arthur’s editing/publishing team of Jay Babcock and Laris Kreslins has been busy streaming the revelations and imperatives of the New New Age into pop culture, where the kids can get at it. Arthur, called “the American counterculture’s answer to the New Yorker” by the London Guardian, has become the place where the ideas meet the music; where Jensen’s freefall apocalyptics can sit with total aptness beside a piece on nouveau hippie swooners Brightblack Morninglight. The same issue begins with a column about mint tea and ends with a list of “sensitive weapons” (e.g., shotgun shells taped to the end of a BB-gun barrel) for use when the grid collapses and Devendra Banhart fans are called upon to defend their homes and woolly hats.
Arthur has saturated itself in the ’60s, via features on the Weather Underground, the MC5, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, and also in the post-psychedelic slant of the music coverage. But there’s nothing regressive here. From the freaky folkers to the acid rockers, Arthur bands have their eyes on the advancing historical horizon: the same rumble of tribal disturbance is heard beneath the dragon-groan of SunnO))) and the fey, brilliant stylings of harpist/singer Joanna Newsom. A tastemaker and an advocate, Babcock has probably done more to promote and consolidate this intangible consensus than anybody else. He calls it “naturalismo.” [That’s a term coined by Devendra Banhart, actually. -JB]
Daniel Pinchbeck used to write for Arthur, as (full disclosure) did I. I stopped because I could no longer afford to write for free; he — rather more nobly — was fired, after submitting a post-Katrina column in which various apocalyptic scenarios of military clampdown were hypothesized.
Babcock smelled “Art Bell–style” paranoia (referring to the conspiracy-mongering host of radio’s Coast to Coast AM), and wouldn’t print it; Pinchbeck recoiled, hurt. “I think Jay’s aiming more at the mainstream,” he says. “He wants his magazine to be the new Rolling Stone.”
What is beyond dispute is Babcock’s commitment to reaching “every generation of bohemian currently living.” “When we run a piece about the MC5,” he says by phone from LA, “it’s not just to educate the youth or to remind ourselves of something. It’s also to say to the original people: your work wasn’t forgotten, and maybe you should pay attention to the kids who are interested in what you did. I think they’re going to start to come back, the ones that went back to the land and just disconnected from contemporary culture for the last twenty years — and they’re gonna find that they have more in common with these kids in their teens and twenties than they do with their fellow retirees at this point. And I don’t even KNOW where that could lead.”
Babcock’s most recent and widely-broadcast prank was an interview showdown with Sully Erna, over the use of Godsmack music in Army-recruitment ads. Unimpressed with his own generation’s efforts at protest, he is trusting to demographics to get the job done: “By 2010 we’ll have a youth bubble, a huge population under 25. And they’ll be stronger, more willing to take risks, to cope with transformation — even to demand it. Who will be their leaders? What kind of culture are they going to inherit? So that’s part of what we’re doing — to try and preserve, elevate, incubate if you like, these ideas.”
The imminent crisis, the next initiatory level — Pinchbeck’s “prepared containers” and Babcock’s wised-up and transformation-ready youngsters. What the New New Agers all agree on is that change is not over there, but here: vast, cruelly accelerated, streaming with possibility. “I’m trying to define this transformative process,” says Pinchbeck, “but it’s already under way.” “Right now,” says Babcock, “we’re like the Beatniks of the Fifties — a little isolated, a little dispersed, driven a little crazy by the culture.
“But different, too. Because unlike the Beats, we have the benefit of knowing that the hippies are coming.”