I am very happy to be here today. And I am just delighted that such a dubious cast of characters has chosen to meet in Texas. Please don’t leave. Just stay.
When Gordon asked me to speak today, I asked him what he wanted me to speak about. He was quick to reply that he would like me to provide some personal reflections on how I came to the study of esotericism. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Two concerns quickly emerged. One is that I will be collapsing in just a few lines incredibly complex historical and moral subjects about which I have written entire books. The other is that such an assignment can easily result in a paper that is much too self-referential, if not actually narcissistic. Still, I have been studying the hidden currents between the lives and works of scholars of religion from graduate school, and I see no reason why these same methods do not apply to us as well. So, at the risk of both gross simplification and blatant narcissism, I will proceed. If the paper does not work for you, I have a simple suggestion: blame Gordon.
So how does one begin with something respectable, like the study of Catholic mystical theology and colonial Hinduism, and end up writing about the California counterculture, telepathy, the alien Gray, and Spider-Man? Clearly, something went terribly wrong. I can detect at least three important moments in this history that can throw some light on how I got here, and why—in all seriousness now—it may not be all wrong.
Freud in the Seminary
The first, and probably most important, moment in my life when I realized that there are secrets in the world that are incredibly important to identify, engage, and critically analyze is when I realized that there were secrets in my own psyche.
I grew up in a happy and humbly prospering family in a small rural community in Nebraska 800 miles north of here in a childhood utopia. When puberty hit (and “hit” is the right verb here), I sensed, on some deep intuitive level, what these odd changes in my flesh meant: they meant that I had to leave, that the utopia would not last. So I did the rational thing: I fought these biological changes. I beat them back. Practically, this meant two things: becoming extremely pious and becoming anorexic. I basically stopped eating. I ate, of course, but never enough. I danced on that line between life and real hunger for about six years.
Looking back, the unconscious logic was simple enough. Food = body = sex = growing up = leaving utopia. The answer, entirely unconscious at this stage, was equally simple, if potentially deadly. No food = stop body = stop sex = don’t grow up = stay in utopia. It sounds terribly stupid when I put it like that. And it was. But this bit of pathological logic also appears to have served another more positive and interesting purpose: it knocked me clean off any “normal” life-path. My dreams as a boy were entirely culture-bound. I wanted to be a comic artist, or an NFL quarterback or, short of that, a doctor. None of that was going to happen now. Anorexia and college football do not go very well together.
The anorexia got worse and worse. I graduated from high school in 1981, “thin as a rail,” as we say. Karen Carpenter died in 1983 of a similar condition. I do not believe the word was even known in the culture before this, and even after Carpenter’s tragic death it was associated with young women, not young men. So I was a double anomaly in the late 1970s.
When I graduated from high school, I enrolled at a monastic seminary in Missouri. The school was formed around a profound psychospiritual orientation, by which I mean that it insisted on both extensive psychological analysis and what the Catholic tradition calls spiritual direction. The basic working principle was that one could not have a healthy spiritual life without intense psychological work and emotional honesty. Accordingly, everyone was psychologically analyzed, but the really difficult cases they sent to the psychoanalysis, Fr. Basil. Fr. Basil was probably the most conservative priest in the monastery. He ate an apple with a knife and fork and had special permission from Rome to celebrate the Mass in Latin. He was also our Latin professor. He had a most unusual teaching style. Every other sentence somehow managed to contain the words “fuck” or “damn.” It was a marvel of English grammar to see how he did this. I think he did it to loosen us up. So many of us were uptight prudes.
I entered psychoanalysis with Fr. Basil in the fall of my junior year, still starving. He taught me to read my dreams as Freud would have read them, that is, as hidden messages, as secret codes of unspeakable truths. My psyche responded with Freudian dreams. These were veritable Freudian stereotypes that shouted “Oedipal Complex!” and warned me of the dangers of sexual repression. The same dreams also taught me in explicit and humorous ways how I had linked “sex” and “food” in my unconscious and was refusing the food to beat back the sex: so beautiful buxom women would appear to me in my dreams and offer me things like banana cream pies and milk shakes. I felt horribly guilty for taking the milky food, so I didn’t. By the end of that year, I had decided to accept the women’s food. In waking life, I was really, really hungry. I ate pretty much non-stop for six months until I had gained 70 pounds. The anorexia was no more.
The same seminary community was also a hotbed of psychosexual exploration for me, by which I do not mean anything explicitly sexual, much less genital. I have told this story in some detail elsewhere, so I will be brief here. The basic point is this: I came into my early psychological awakening and intellectual calling as a confused and repressed straight man in what was more or less a gay religious community.
Nothing inappropriate happened. The homoeroticism of the community from where I sat (which, as a naïve straight skeleton, was pretty damn far away) was a sublimated one, or at least a sublimating one. The gayness of it all (in both senses of that word) would break out at the four annual parties, usually through some comedic skit involving cross-dressing or, in one case I remember, the suggestive handling of a vacuum cleaner hose. But, for the most part, my sense was that everyone was trying the best he could to live celibately. It was a supportive and loving community, and I was very happy there.
There was a dark side to all of this, however, a very dark side, but it did not involve the playful, funny, and affectionate homoeroticisms of the young men I witnessed. It involved the Church’s teachings about homosexuality, which were then being shaped by a future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The dark side expressed itself—or so I am partly guessing—through three suicides that occurred in that very small community. A young monk hung himself in the barn. A seminarian blew his head off with a gun. And my best friend swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. I do not know for sure why the first two men killed themselves, but I know why my best friend tried. He came back, and he was very clear with me why he did it: he did it because he was gay. He also explained to me that just about everyone else in the seminary was gay as well. “Didn’t you know that?” he asked, with some astonishment. Actually, no, I didn’t know that. But, wow, that made a lot of sense.
That was a turning point for me. Three things now became obvious. First, these events explained to me, very convincingly, why I did not fit into the various social cliques of the community. Okay, I was fantastically neurotic, grossly pious, and just plain weird. But I was also not gay, and that, I could see after my friend’s explanations, made a very big difference.
Second, these events taught me that a religious tradition’s moral position could have broadly destructive, even individually deadly consequences. I began now to take a much more suspicious position vis-à-vis religious traditions and their self-proclaimed “moralities.”
Third, and most importantly of all for the long run, these events taught me that there were psychosexual reasons why these particular young men wanted to become celibate priests (that is, not marry women), and why every other young Catholic male did not want to become a celibate priest (that is, marry women). I also realized—and this was the real key—that it was perfectly possible that many of these young men would not be aware of these psychosexual reasons. In simple terms, I had awoken to the fundamental reality and shaping power of the unconscious. I had awoken, through years of anorexia and sexual suffering, the deaths of two acquaintances, and the suicide attempt of a close friend, that the psyche had its own esoteric life, that this esoteric life was intimately tied to human sexuality, and that these secrets could well spell disaster, if not death, if one did not come to terms with it.
I vowed to come to terms with it.
Becoming a Secret
I was beginning to suspect that male mysticism and male homoeroticism were often more or less the same thing, at least within most orthodox contexts. But what I really wanted was an erotic mystical life of my own, which meant a male heterosexual mysticism. But there was no such thing in Roman Catholicism, anywhere. Such dreams had been tried, of course, throughout Christian history, but they were always beat down, deemed heretical, and persecuted out of existence, or just ignored and denied institutional support until they wilted away. Or became secrets and rumors.
As a telling illustration of my point, one of the monks at the seminary once humorously told me a story about Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist priest who had intuited a mystical impulse at the heart of matter and the evolutionary process, which, of course, relies on a whole lot of heterosexuality to work at all. The monk explained how they sold Teilhard’s slightly disreputable books in the seminary bookstore back in the 1970s: exactly like the American drugstores of the time were selling pornography. They literally kept the books under the counter and handed them over to seminarians in a brown paper bag. That’s my point. Male heterosexuality is pornographic whenever it is translated into the spiritual realm within almost any Western orthodox religious world.
So I had to go elsewhere. I had to go to Asia. I eventually landed in nineteenth-century Calcutta and Bengali Shakta Tantra. My dissertation, ironically on yet another male homoerotic mysticism, became my first book, Kali’s Child. The book appeared in 1995. In January of 1997, the book was vilified in a full-page review in a Calcutta English newspaper. Soon a ban movement was announced. The central government created a special file on me and the book, and the work was examined by the CBI (India’s FBI) to determine whether or not it should be banned. When I went to teach at Harvard in 2000, things got worse. The hate campaigns spiked, and the book was debated in Parliament. When I moved to Rice University two years later, Hindu fundamentalist groups attempted to block both my hire and my tenure.
What was at stake here? Kali's Child presented itself as a study of secrets. Beginning with the empirical observation that the English translations had bowdlerized and even completely omitted aspects of Ramakrishna's Bengali guhya katha or "secret talk," I proceeded to translate, interpret and contextualize these same secrets. The facts that Ramakrishna's Tantric culture was itself coded in esoteric terms and was practiced within secret antinomian rituals made such an approach more than appropriate. To do so, however, I had to deal with some very intimate details of the saint's life. That is, after all, why the passages were originally coded as secret.
There is so much to say here: about the rise of the Hindu Religious Right in India in the early 1990s and how my book became a pawn in their own political games; about the postcolonial and moral complexities of the situation; about the misinformation campaigns and how the young Internet super-charged these; about the warm ecstatic letters I received from women and men both in India and the States who had known similar states and found the book’s open discussions of sexual trauma and mystical states profoundly healing; about my own overwhelming encounter with an invisible erotic electric presence in Calcutta during Kali-puja of 1989; about how the book was warmly embraced by a number of Indian intellectuals, a novelist, and a film-maker; and about how these censorship campaigns increased in the 1990s and turn of the millennium as the same Hindu fundamentalists targeted other American scholars; and, finally, how all of this recently spiked in the “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, this last winter. Wendy is my mentor.
But we do not have time for any of that. We only have time for this. I simply want to observe that being the object of other people’s hatred, misinformation, and censorship campaigns for six years taught me a lot. I watched how journalists mishandled my work; how the propagandists twisted its ideas until they were gross stereotypes (think: how Fox News discusses President Obama); and how colleagues began to avoid me in both subtle and not so subtle ways. But, most of all, I marveled at how an entire religious culture could be fundamentally wrong about the most profound issues regarding its own textual histories. I was in the completely unacceptable situation of standing for a set of truths that were being utterly rejected, at least in public, by the tradition I was studying. I was no longer studying secrets. I had become one.
I eventually decided that I could no longer work in the study of Hinduism. The problem was not just the censorship and hate campaigns, although those were awful enough. The real problem was that I found myself self-censoring.
Then, in the spring of 1998, Michael Murphy, the co-founder of Esalen, called me after finishing Kali’s Child in a San Rafael restaurant, armed, as he likes to tell the story, with a glass of red wine in one hand and a cell phone in another. He was ecstatic about the book, largely for its Tantric re-readings of the saint, that is, for precisely those things my orthodox censors most hated. It was Mike who finally pulled me out of my intellectual foxhole and set me, over many years and countless conversations, on a new path. Never underestimate the power of a friend in a foxhole.
I first visited the Esalen Institute in the fall of 1998. Many other invitations and visits followed. At some point, I began to ponder seriously a long-range historiographical project on the place and the various movements that it had helped to birth. I made this decision partly out of an intellectual fascination with the place and its people, but it was also a conscious strategy of professional survival. I needed a subject and a community to work with that would not revile me for wanting to talk honestly about sexuality and religion. A community whose central ritual practice is nude-bathing seemed like a pretty decent place to start.
It was really the ideas and the people, though, that excited me the most. Since my first trip in 1998, I have spent thousands of hours with hundreds of historians, philosophers, physicists, and neuroscientists at Esalen, mostly in five-day symposia settings. These conversations have come to define, shape, and guide my thought and writing on esotericism. Much of this conversation, after all, has been fundamentally esoteric, both in the sense that this was our topic (for example, Wouter Hanegraaff and I co-hosted a four-year symposia series on Western Esotericism at Esalen), but also in the sense that I do not think these colleagues would have ever said what they said in a standard academic setting. There is something about the setting and the place that encourages the speaking of secrets.
It was during these same conversations that I heard story after story from trusted friends about things I knew could not have possibly happened, which I knew happened. I noticed that most of the people who told me these stories were telling me secrets, and so they wanted their names and institutions suppressed when I wrote about them. I also realized that I had no way of handling such stories, that I had studied mystical literature for a quarter of a century and never once read a book on the “paranormal,” for example. I decided that I had to figure out how this could have happened. So I set about writing an intellectual history of the paranormal and, after that, a book on the paranormal’s passages through American popular culture.
So that is how I got from Kali to Spider-Man. I got here through starvation and the discovery of the unconscious within a psychoanalytically savvy monastic seminary. I got here through a close reading of some censored Bengali secrets and the subsequent experience of having other people wanting to censor me. And, finally, I got here through an Invisible College of colleagues with fantastic stories whose impossibility, I came to realize, was more a function of our categories and disciplinary histories than anything about the history of religions itself.
What do I take from all of this? Too much to say here. Let me just say that these two decades have taught me that scholars of religion really do know things, things that are often not compatible with either the public faces of the religious traditions or the reigning materialist models of the sciences. Whether we as individuals are comfortable with this or not, the field as a whole possesses what are, for all practical purposes, secrets. I would go further still. I would argue, as I have elsewhere, that at least some forms of our scholarship constitute very specific forms of gnosticism, esotericism and mysticism that we would do well to recognize as such. I am not sure what all of this means. If my own little history means anything at all, though, I would leave you with this single thought. I would suggest that, despite the very real costs in the short run, it is almost always better in the long run to speak secrets rather than to keep them.