Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky reveals that the true secret of the occult is that it wets the bed.
"In spite of the progress of science, the modern world is full of mysteries that may never be solved…"—Narrator (John Cullum)
What is the occult? This summer, I am teaching a "literature and the occult" course for the first time in several years, so I've been thinking quite a bit about what we mean when we use that word. Do we simply mean the supernatural? This would relegate the occult to religion, mythology, and other areas in which logic frequently gives way to aesthetics and storytelling. Or do we think of the occult in relation to science (or more likely pseudoscience); that is, some aspect of the world not yet incorporated into our post-Enlightenment rational worldview? Are we talking about ghosts, divination, psychic powers, or Bigfoot mating with Elvis on a spaceship bound for the hollow Earth?
The word "occult" seems to turn up, judging by the above examples, as a catch-all category for so many things both material and immaterial, testable and purely narrative, and anything and everything in between. I will not speculate here why such a category exists or why certain ideas end up in it (for that, I direct you to Michael Shermer's excellent Why People Believe Weird Things), but producer Dan Burstein certainly wants to speculate. In fact, the only supplement on the DVD edition of Secrets of the Occult is a featurette that asks the very question with which I began this review.
In "What Is the Occult?" (which consists of half an hour of various interview clips that were probably cut from the main program), a PhD from the "Global Consciousness Project" asserts that the "ancients" understood great mysteries through intuition, and thus developed "occult magic" to explain the dark mysteries of the world. The consensus among the experts interviewed here: the occult is secretive, mysterious, esoteric, hidden—but to those on the inside, it is the key to revelation and self-improvement. However, the featurette also implies that the weirdness of science (as explained by, say, a Princeton physicist) somehow justifies the notion that the weirdness of the occult must be true, because after all, we once thought quantum physics was absurd too. Einstein used thought experiments, so a hypnotherapist feels that anything we can imagine will eventually come to pass. But another writer acknowledges that "new agers" reject mechanistic science in favor of an almost reactionary return to mysticism and imagination, because it makes them feel better about a universe recast as a more sensitive, organic, pre-industrial place. It isn't entirely clear whether he thinks this is good or not—but all the new agers interviewed here (including the "Global Consciousness Project" guy) are clearly happy about it.
Producer Dan Burstein specializes in books and documentaries based on dubious quasi-historical topics (mostly inspired by Dan Brown novels) that connect up religious mysteries, pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and the supernatural. So Secrets of the Occult casts the argument as a debate between two camps: the "magicians" and the "scientists." Each group gets its own program on this DVD. Part I begins with Aleister Crowley—and takes his quasi-magical pranks totally seriously (when it is hard to tell if Crowley himself did), then jumps back to Egyptian mysticism. From this, you can tell that the definition of "occult" the show is going to take is a well-used model: the Golden Dawn version of history in which Egypt is the source of esoteric wisdom and occultism is specifically about a system of examining the world that closely parallels the history of science.
Part I does stick mostly to history and does not make too many claims about the truth value behind occult claims. Instead, it takes a more social theory approach: occult mysteries were often rooted in a desire to resist prevailing authority, whether in the form of the high secrecy of the Pythagoreans, the ceremonial rigmarole of the Renaissance alchemists, or the nineteenth and twentieth century iconoclasts. This is a quite interesting way to explore the issue and does avoid the usual mistakes that occultism documentaries make. We spend a little time on major figures like John Dee (court astrologer and political advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and a crucial figure in undermining Catholic power in England) and Madame Blavastky (founder of Theosophy). Interestingly, the documentary even deals a bit with the controversies surrounding Blavatsky and Crowley, in particular their racism and credibility issues.
Occult studies—especially in their close association with the history of mainstream science—have been crucial methods for understanding the world for much of human history. They are culturally constructed narratives. But that doesn't make them true. Science is a culturally constructed narrative as well, but it has a deliberately self-correcting mechanism, whereas occult studies often rely on "mystery" as a way of filling gaps. (In other words, if you find a hole in your theory, you can just say, "Oh, the universe is a strange place and magical things happen" and be done with it.) Still, as a cultural phenomena, a set of narratives that help us explain the world (and thus tell us a lot about ourselves and our desires), the occult is a marvelous topic to explore.
However, most documentaries on the occult elevate dubious claimants and unexamined claims to the same level as actual experts and evidence. In other words, a psychic says "I can read minds" and is given the same level of credence as a scientist who has tested the psychic's claims a dozen times and found no evidence of mind reading. And then the documentary often ends with a foreboding "But what if it is true?" Cue spooky synthesizer music.
Part I of Secrets of the Occult, in taking a historical approach and trying not to examine specific claims of the paranormal, comes across as much more balanced than most of its kin. For example, a section on John Dee and Enochian magic does not spend time worrying about whether Enochian magic actually works. Instead, it focuses on the social situation of the time and how Dee's promotion of his system through Europe challenged the political hegemony of the Catholic Church, and how this led (according to the show) to the popularity of secret societies like the Freemasons, who often had covert political agendas (Protestant mercantilism in the case of the Masons) beneath their quasi-religious trappings.
Part II is a different animal. Here, the historical approach is used to show the intimate link between science and mysticism. New agers are given more room here to express their opinions about the truth of their claims (as opposed to Part I, where they are limited to relating historical facts). We learn how Newton valued physics, alchemy, and Christian mystery equally. We learn how psychology and neuroscience made a detour into Mesmerism in the 18th century, which evolved into the still-misunderstood practice of hypnosis. We spend a lot of time with Carl Jung, who tried with middling success to validate occultism. Toward the end, the documentary does imply that Einstein's early interest in the occult somehow shaped his scientific theories, which is somewhat of a misrepresentation of his complex religious beliefs. But what emerges from these stories is ultimately that the occult stuff was never proven true, but the scientific theories were tested and revised and tested and revised—and turned out to be true. We also see how scientific paradigms—from Aristotle to Newtonian physics to Einstein's relativity—build on one another to expand our understanding of the universe. Along the way, it seems like the occult mysteries, like Newton's alchemy experiments or Jung's experiments in spiritualism, remain unresolved. Even Dan Burstein himself, who turns up as an interview subject from time to time, takes a skeptical position on pseudoscientific claims.
I suspect that most people who purchase this DVD will be looking for validation of their belief in new age ideas. They will not necessarily find that here. Instead, Secrets of the Occult offers a neutral historical overview of occult practice as a means of social resistance, and a validation of the scientific worldview as capable of actually fulfilling occultism's failed promise of illumination. I found it refreshingly level-headed. Pity that it is likely to be overlooked by reasonable people and ignored by the credulous. Still, it is well worth your time.
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