“Man, the magical being that he is destined to be, is no longer magical. He’s an average piece of meat,” writes Carlos Castaneda in The Active Side Of Infinity. “There are no more dreams for man but the dreams of an animal who is being raised to become a piece of meat: trite, conventional, imbecilic.”
There’s no disputing that today — the age of the internet and social media — is entirely different to even two decades ago. Almost everything is instantly accessible — from music to sex. And an endless choice of products are available at the click of a button. But, something more insipid has occurred, slowly, and almost undetectable. We no longer dream as did those who came even half a century ago.
Let’s look briefly at a few fundamental differences between the twenty-first century Westerner and those of previous, and other, cultures:
People are less creative
Objective measures of creativity in the West show that it has been in decline for the last few decades. But do we really need tests to prove that to us? Probably not. Since the explosion of the all-encompassing expansion of the internet, we have seen no new youth fashions or youth cultures comparable to Rockabilly, Psychobilly, Mod, Hippie, Punk, Goth, Grunge, or Hip Hop. (Indeed, the most popular forms of contemporary music — pop, Hip Hop, and country — are decades old. The parents of young people were probably listening to them during their youth)
For all our talk of expressing ourselves, there is no Club Kids-like phenomenon and no contemporary Leigh Bowery. Few young people join bands in the hope of escaping a life of dull predictability. No one paints on their clothes, sews patches on them, or tie-dyes them. Even if someone wants jeans with rips in them, they are purchased (at a higher price than regular jeans) with the rips already made. (We don’t even trust ourselves to rip our own jeans.) Instead of creating their own fashion, music, or art, the vogue is for taking selfies (which look exactly like everyone else’s selfies) or for tweeting the same opinion about the latest political agenda.
We live in a world of unlimited choice but extremely limited thinking. Sticking with clothing, everything from flared jeans to Punk mohair sweaters are available at the click of a button Yet, walk through Manhattan or London, and everyone looks the same. (You could be anywhere.)
This wasn’t the case a few decades ago. And this is especially ironic considering that we live in a time in which we are love-bombed by the message that the most important thing is for us to be ourselves and to express ourselves. But when people actually did express themselves they did so in an environment that frowned upon — even condemned — anyone who did so.
There is less investment
Since everything is almost immediately accessible, and no real need to think, create, or live in a different way, there is little or no investment.
In relationships, especially in the bigger cities, people often have one eye open, in the hope that they’ll be able to “trade up” (while hoping that that person doesn’t do the same to them).
In regards to esoteric spirituality, I heard a self-appointed master in interview some years ago. At one point, he talked about his Facebook group, quoting one of its members as saying “why would anyone join an organization like Freemasonry when you can join a group on Facebook?”
Many people mistake the simulacra of social media for the real thing, of course, but despite what this social media magician might have thought, even offline, it’s relatively easy to join a group that claims to have ancient, arcane secrets or that is practicing some type of magic or techniques of enlightenment. But what is the quality of the membership? And what are they really doing? Such spirituality works best in an atmosphere of living on the edge, not of scrolling through memes.
The accessibility of esotericism has meant that it has largely become a prop. In the most literal manifestation, the attractive Instagram star is able to use “witchy” symbols and clothing to spice up his or her selfies. On a deeper level, as Slavoj Zizek has said about the Wall Street practicing “Western Buddhism” in the evening as a support for his materialist lifestyle, so esotericism is used to spice life up a bit and help overcome boredom. It fails to challenge the assumptions of the average individual because it has absorbed the opinions of the average individual and reflects them back to him or her. Whatever opinions are espoused on daytime television, we can be sure that high priests and priestesses will claim that that is what their religion has always taught (or should have).
And, of course, what applies to spirituality, applies also to artistic and intellectual groups — once the engines of creativity and culture in any society.
There is no mystery
Mystery is essential to religion and spirituality — and, perhaps, to art and to love. It gives us a sense that the ordinary world is anything but ordinary; that it is a place in which cosmic forces of good and evil do battle for our soul, and in which we must join in the fray. Now, connected to everyone, it is difficult for us to have any sense of Mystery, wonder, or romance. Everything is in danger of becoming dogmatic. Social media is populated by people arguing over questionable statistics and skewed media reports. And, estranged from culture, spirituality, and the physical world, that alone gives their lives meaning.
The pagan found Mystery in going out into nature — into the woods, the fields, and the mist. And the Christian found it thinking of Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Where do we find Mystery? To experience it does not make one naive; it makes us visionary, romantic, someone whose consciousness is expanded.
People no longer discuss art or ideas
Plato, Hegel, Camus, Wilde, Picasso, Dali — these, and others who have shaped our culture, are of little interest to us now. The ideas that obsess even self-professed “radicals” — who believe them as passionately as everyone else — are those espoused by daytime television.
Perhaps we are even afraid of ideas since to think something that daytime television has not is to run the risk of being denounced for some ideological infraction. And, perhaps, consequently, there are no pockets of great thinkers and doers — nothing equivalent to the Surrealists at the time of their manifesto, nothing equivalent to the Beatnik poets or the early Hippies, or — to use a more obscure example — to the 19th century Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, a highly-secretive esoteric Order originally populated with poets, actors, theater promoters, and adventurers. The Golden Dawn still exists in various guises, including — of course — an “Open Source Order Of The Golden Dawn.” But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these probably aren’t populated by contemporary equivalents of poet laureate W. B. Yeats or actress Florence Farr.
And for all of our pride in our tolerance, our understanding of other cultures is exceedingly trivial. In truth, our intention is not to understand them but to mold them in our image — so that we feel secure and believe that they are the same as us (but different to the people in our own society that we don’t like). Islam might one of yesterday’s fashions in the West but when Western societies thought about it, it was always thought about in terms of the latest Western beliefs, e.g., women’s rights (is it against them? Did it invent them? Is the burka equivalent to the bikini or is the bikini more oppressive? And so on). No one bothered to read the Islamic neoplatonists, or the Persian Sufi mystics, or to understand the complicated relationship of Western spiritual adventurers and Islamic radical thought during the late 19th century. Who even knew that Ayatollah Khomeini was influenced by Plato’s Republic? Because, really, who cares about ideas? (And I mean ideas as world-shaping, not world-conforming, powers.)
There are too Many Soldiers; not enough scouts
To use Julia Galef’s metaphor, our society has turned into one of soldiers. We need more scouts — more intellectual, spiritual, and creative psychonauts: people who are prepared to leave the prison of the hive mind of social media and daytime television, and go out in search of new alien landscapes and new possibilities.
Is there hope?
In Myanmar recently, nine poets were arrested. At the beginning of authoritarian crackdowns (often posing as revolutions), poets, authors, and artists are the first to be arrested or shot. They are the people who think the ideas that society thinks later on, and it is they who can express ideas that threaten authoritarianism. In the West, however, rather than dreaming and thinking up new worlds, our poets, artists, and intellectuals (if we have any) merely reflect the views of the 24-hour news media cycle and daytime television.
Many of those that shaped our culture were rejected by it or, at the very least, were outsiders. In a sense, the creators, thinkers, inventors, and innovators of today have to find a way to exist and think outside of the hive mind of contemporary society with its 24-hour media and social media group-think.
Real — and influential — artists, designers, thinkers, authors, poets, musicians, and creators of culture have always thought new ideas and created new aesthetics. This possibility remains — and will probably always remain — open to us.
Even if the fine art world no longer produces anything akin to Surrealism, Cubism, Dada, or Abstract Impressionism, there are plenty of interesting — often obscure — painters and sculptors around. Notably, the esoteric, neopagan, occult, and alternative spirituality world is full of artists (such as Hagen von Tulien), musicians, dancers, and talismanic publishers (such as Theion Publishing).
It takes a certain amount of courage and self-awareness to dream. Yet, it is possible for all of us — to dream, to daydream, to imagine, to read widely, to think deeply, and to reject the hive mind. It is possible for many of us to create art or music or to write books or poetry. And it is possible for most people to form discussion groups, book clubs, groups that get out into the wilderness, or that just get together to improve their health and fitness.
Ultimately, the hope for the future lies where it has always been: in the hands of society’s creative minority — those few dreamers, outsiders, free-thinkers, and trail-blazers who set an example and sew the seeds of new worlds. You could be one of them.