Ambivalent about New Age?

By: Joshua Glenn
September 21, 2009

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HILOBROW is superficially similar, as we’ve noted, to Middlebrow. So HiLobrow despises Middlebrow for the same reason that idlers detest slackers, and punks detest rockists: we’re afraid that we’re really just like them. No wonder, then, that hilo types are ambivalent — not apathetic, but torn in opposing directions — about New Age.

“At its origins, New Age was about expanding consciousness to cosmic range, integrating humanity with nature at its vastest and most awesome,” Camille Paglia wrote in Salon, once. “Alas, today’s New Age has shrunk down to pampering the wounded ‘inner child,’ yet another in the endless American parade of victims.”

This statement might mark Paglia as a true highbrow — i.e., because she digs Lowbrow and despises Middlebrow. But Paglia’s disposition is more complicated, less heimlich, than that. Whether we like it (or her) or not, it’s possible that she’s a hilobrow. The same can be said of Jeanette Winterson, who — writing in the NYT Book Review, yesterday — sounds an ambivalent note about a fictional New Age cult in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood.

The Waterless Flood has long been predicted by God’s Gardeners, a back-to-nature cult founded by Adam One. Its members live simply and organically, sing terrible hymns, have no dress sense and peddle a bolted-together theology, difficult to think about if you think at all. With values diametrically opposed to those of the ruling CorpSEcorps, the Gardeners aren’t “the answer,” but at least they’ve asked enough questions to avoid a life of endless shopping and face-lifts.

Expanding consciousness to cosmic range — yes! Integrating humanity with nature at its vastest and most awesome — yes! Pampering the wounded inner child — no! Values diametrically opposed to those of the mainstream — yes! Asking enough questions — yes! Bolted-together theology — no! (“Difficult to think about if you think at all”: good line.)

What to make, then, of “Seeing Yourself in Their Light,” the lead story in yesterday’s NYT Fashion and Style section (illustration at top)? Of the New Gurus, “young women who are vegetarian, well versed in self-help and New Age spirituality, and who are finding a way to make a living preaching to eager audiences, mostly female”? Are we ambivalent about them, readers? We’d like to hear from you. Post your comments about the NYT story, and New Age, below.

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What do you think?

  1. If New Age doesn’t include communing with gigantic robot Celestials that seed life in the Universe, then you can count me out.

  2. Here’s my proposed (an utterly arbitrary) solution:

    slice through the Gordian knot of ambivalence and move on to out and out disdain for all things New Agey but stay down with purely space age, sci-fi, psychedelic, afro-futuristic sorts of things.

    Certainly New Agey things have hippie roots and pure hippiedom I can handle. I can respect indigenous shamanistic traditions if they’re not so strongly filter through some strange priveledged outsider strainer. In that sense the New Age movement is middlebrow because it seems to borrow from more wild and woolly movements and co-opt them through a “me-centric” generally apolitical sieve.

    Also, I think part of New Age is simply boomer fear of death. The recently deceased hobo folky Utah Phillips had a good commentary the New Age town he lived in: “no matter how new age you get, old age is gonna kick yer ass.”

  3. Yes, let us attune our antennae to the tiniest flicker of a single rogue quark across the infinite brand-width of the afro-future-continuum.

    And see if The Man manages to make a brand that notion of hyper-cosmic-sensitivity and create a mall chain around it.

  4. does anybody actually identify themselves as New Age? or is the term itself just a big middlebrow branding con? i like it, its a great way of insulting about 400 different things at once, but i wonder how many people would actually stand up and say ‘yus, i believe devoutly in the New Age!’… term came from the mag by AR Orage, didn’t it? who was some sort of pre-gurdjieffian modernist…

  5. New Age was indeed coined by Orage, who was a very interesting guy, and later picked up by Lou Reed (“‘Can I have your autograph?’ he said to the fat blonde actress”), but I believe that currently it’s a repointing of “Age of Aquarius.” That phenomenon didn’t work out so well, and it ain’t the age of Aquarius anymore–although I don’t know enough about astrology to say what age it is (Feces?)–but the incense vendors and chakra farmers and past-life-regression hucksters left standing in their tie-dyed shifts in the age of Reagan-Thatcher needed some kind of collective banner to march under, and that one was handy, as well as so vague it could mean just about anything, which is always handy for semi-abstract commercial ventures.

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