Big Think Interview With Mitch Horowitz
Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of "Occult America," awarded the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz has recently written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and BoingBoing.
Horowitz is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is the occult?
Mitch Horowitz: The occult is a hot button term and people have very different associations with it. Some people think it’s diabolical to other people it’s just a mélange of superstition and nonsense, and it’s actually none of those things. And I use the term for a very specific reason because it has historical integrity.
During the Renaissance, various religious scholars and translators were just fascinated with the theology of the ancient world; the Egyptian and Greek and Roman religions that had vanished and seemed to have disappeared even without a trace during the Dark Ages. These religions were studied and rediscovered during the Renaissance in a way that hugely aroused and excited the Renaissance mind.
Starting in the mid- to late-1400’s, when scholars began to rediscover ancient Greek and even Egyptian texts, they believed they had stumbled upon some kind of primeval spirituality that predated all the modern religions and that all of our religious ideas sprang from this secret, hidden, unknown, pre-Christian, pre-Jewish spirituality, which in many cases they associated with ancient Egypt.
By the early decades of the 1500’s, that kind of spirituality which involved divination, alchemy, astrology, prophesizing, communing with spirits and angels and hidden forces, that kind of spirituality came to be called, "occult" or hidden, or secret as the term originally meant in Latin. This was an unchurched spirituality from the ancient world that was being reborn in the modern world, but without a church or a temple or a priesthood. And this unchurched spirituality, which had vanished during the Dark Ages and was now bubbling back up into the awareness of the modern mind, was called occult for that reason. It was a reclaiming of something that had been lost and the term has taken many twists and turns over the generations.
But historically it does mean something, it does refer to the spirituality that was practiced by the temple orders of the ancient world and that has come down to us today in sort of threads and strands. And that’s why I use the term.
Question: What makes America such a fertile breeding ground for the occult?
Mitch Horowitz: In many respects, America, from its earliest days, was and remains, the religious laboratory of the world. The entire culture of alternative spirituality, new age spirituality, the rebirth of esoteric and occult spirituality in the modern age, springs from America—and for very decided reasons.
Even back in its colonial days, America developed a reputation as a safe harbor for people with unusual or radical religious beliefs. The British Reformer and Quaker, William Penn, founded the City of Philadelphia in the early 1680’s—Philadelphia being the “City of Brotherly Love”—with the express ideal that Philly could be a place where people of different religions could live side-by-side successfully together. So from very early on in its existence, Philly was home to Quakers, Mennonites, people from radical offshoots of the reformation, people with mystical ideas from the Lutheran Church relocated to Philly. Eventually you had Catholics and Jews living there. And surprisingly enough, this all happened fairly quickly.
Roughly at the same time, Europe was still going through these spasms of violence and famine that grew out of a war that had just devastated central Europe that we all the 30 Years War. The 30 Years War was a complicated and very confounding conflict, but basically it pitted Protestant armies against Catholic armies. To some extent, it was a reaction to some of the religious liberalism, and, to a degree, to the occult revival that had emerged during the Renaissance. The 30 Years War just devastated the German-speaking portion of Europe roughly between the Rhine Valley in the West and Prague and Bohemia in the East. And its aftereffects were felt for generations. That area had been a unique laboratory of liberal spirituality and after the 30 Years War was supposedly finished, it was just devastated.
People who had mystical beliefs, who were interested in various strands of Christian mysticism, astrology, alchemy, number symbolism, the magical uses of hymn and song, those different groups and sects that had once been situated in that area, began to flee. And by the 1690s, they were fleeing to Philadelphia. They were fleeing to the New World. Word trickled back across the Atlantic fairly quickly that Philadelphia was a place where you could practice a whole variety of religious ideas without harassment.
So from the late 1690s on, Philly not only became a magnet for people who were fleeing this kind of religious backlash that had swept through Central Europe, but people began to arrive in America and discovered you could found communes here, you could found experimental communities. The earliest was on the Wissahickon Creek in what is now called the Germantown part of Philadelphia. There were others that spread out to the countryside around Philadelphia, on of the most long-lived and successful was the commune at Ephrata, whose building still stands.
So from very early on, America became a magnet for people who were fleeing religious persecution. And particularly people who were fleeing the backlash against the religious liberalism and the occult revival that occurred in the Renaissance. And if you follow the family tree, right up through 1776 you have different groups coming to this country. One of the best known is the "Shaking Quakers," or the Shakers, who fled persecution in Manchester, England, came to New York City in 1775; scraped together some money; moved up to the Hudson Valley outside of Albany in 1776, and started the first Shaker village in a town called Niskayuna. It’s still there. It’s there as a museum and it’s dilapidated, you can go and see it. And this was repeating itself again and again.
And so the fact is, America became a special source of attraction to people who were fleeing the aftereffects of the 30 Years War and the religious persecution that began to sweep through Europe in the period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. And when people got here, very often they succeeded. They founded their communes and organizations and communities without harassment. And America became this kind of laboratory for religious experiment.
Question: What were the crucial moments in the history of the occult in America?
Mitch Horowitz: The American occult really became established in the firmament of this country probably between the 1690s and the late 1840s. And there were several very definite personalities and groups and events that made that possible. As I mentioned earlier, by the 1680s, 1690s, mystical groups began to flee Central Europe and come to America.
If you flash forward to 1776, you not only have the Shakers organizing their first village outside of Albany in New York, but in the State of Rhode Island, there was a young woman named Jemima Wilkinson who had been caught up on the Baptist Revival, we call “The Great Awakening,” and in the fall of 1776, Jemima, who had grown up on a prosperous Quaker farm, took to her bed with a terrible fever and she was slipping in and out of a coma and her family was sure that she was going to die. And then one day, without any antecedent whatsoever, she leaped up from the bed, all red and ruddy and filled with this renewed energy, and announced to her shocked Quaker family that she would no longer be known as Jemima, that woman had died and that the being standing before them would be known as the Public Universal Friend. And she became, in a certain sense, the nation’s first spirit channeler.
By the early 1800s, that area of central New York state became known as the “Burned Over District,” it was the place considered “burned over” with the fires of religious passion. And that’s where you start to see the first alternative religious culture developing in America, and really, in the modern world.
The Iroquois Indians had occupied central New York state, but they were pushed off that land by the colonial government just after the War of Independence. So, central New York was opened to land settlement and speculation and a whole wave of relatively liberal New Englanders began to flood into central New York state and for about a generation or two, in the early- to mid-1800’s, the place produced most of the new religions that grew out of America; Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, is where the Shakers spread; you have the first experiments, large experiments, in American utopianism; the Oneida community was located there. The place was a hotbed of political reform. The fist women’s rights conference was held in Seneca Falls, New York. It was also the birthplace of the movement of what we call “spiritualism,” which involved séances and spirit raps and talking to the dead. And spiritualism just became the driving engine behind everything because as spiritualism grew in central New York state and it started essentially in a little village called Hydesville, outside the city of Rochester, where two teenage girls, in 1848, told their Methodist household that the bangs and raps and noises that were being heard in their cabin were actually spirit raps. And the girls said: “We can reach to the beyond.” And people believed them. They were hungry to believe them because Americans saw themselves as a people who were entitled to a kind of new dispensation from God. They used to refer to the country sometimes as the “New Israel” or the “American Israel.”
They were expressing the most radical impulses of the Reformation in which people believed that you could reach the beyond, you could reach the divine, with no intermediary. You didn’t need the man in robes, you could do it yourself.
And as soon as people began to organize into séance circles and people began to identify themselves as transmediums who could reach the beyond. It opened up a door for women to assume their first roles of religious leadership in the modern world. This really can’t be overstated. Women had no clerical role anywhere in the Western world, period.
When spiritualism dawned, suddenly women who wanted to engage in the civic and religious and political culture were becoming transmediums. It is no accident that in this “burned over” district of upstate New York, you had the birth of spiritualism coinciding with the fist conference for women’s voting rights. The two were branches coming out of the same tree for about a generation in the 19th Century, you could not find a voting rights activist, a suffragist activist, who hadn’t spent some time at the séance table, and vice versa. The movements just absolutely grew out of one another.
Once that social and spiritual opening was created for women in the form of spiritualism, suddenly ambitious women who wanted to participate in the culture had a kind of a voice. So this began a marriage between occult spirituality and reformist or radical politics that just roared through the country, and really, has never gone away.
So, the 1840s, some historians call that decade “The Mad 40s,” the 1840s was the pivotal moment in American life where an avant-garde spiritual culture began to grow and where a radical and reformist political culture began to grow.
This was also bound up with ideologies that were coming over to America from Europe. Chief among them was the method called mesmerism, which we today call hypnotism. Americans were in love with mesmerism because it was something that you could do in your own home. You could mesmerize or hypnotize your aunt or your mother or your father and people would go into these trance states and you could introduction autosuggestions tot hem or as some people saw it, you could cure them of illnesses. And sometimes people would emerge, re-emerge from a trance state and report that they had some kind of out of body experience. They had traveled to other realms or to other planets, or to the heavens.
Occult ideologies, all these supernatural ideologies where people said they were in touch with the world beyond, they could see either into other realms or into the future or they could serve as a spirit channeler, they were confirming a very, very deep-seated hope that Americans had about themselves and they served as a conduit for radically liberal religious and political ideas.
Question: Was Lincoln an occultist?
Mitch Horowitz: The Lincolns moved into the White House in March of 1861 and the country was just enthralled with spiritualism. Everybody had heard of it, a vast number of people were practicing it with different levels of seriousness. Shortly after the Lincolns moved into the White House, they lost their 11-year-old son, Willie, to what was probably from typhus fever and the grief was too much for Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. And she, as with hundreds and thousands of Americans, more or less converted to spiritualism. And she began to frequent spirit mediums, engage in séances and she absolutely believed in the authenticity of contact with her departed son.
There are historical records that attest to séances being held in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War. And one of the trickiest tasks when you’re approaching the history of the occult—probably with any religious movement—is, which sources do you believe? Who can be relied upon? So one of the most convincing historical records of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House appeared in the Boston Gazette. The President had a trance sitting in 1863, and he permitted a correspondent from the Boston Gazette to be present and the proceedings were pure Lincoln. He was in good humor, he was in good spirits, to put it a certain way, he was teasing people, he was subjecting his cabinet secretaries to advice about the war from this transmedium who was in touch at one point with the spirit of Henry Knox, who had been George Washington’s Secretary of War.
From the content of the article, I think there’s reason to think that something did go on like what was reported. But it’s tricky because the transmedium who conducted the séance was named Charles Shauckle, and there’s no Charles Shauckle who appears in any of the spiritualist newspapers of the day which could lead one to conclude that the story was just made up or that it was some sort of a pseudonym. The historian, Carl Sandburg wondered—he seemed to take seriously that this séance did occur and I think he’s correct. But he wondered, why, why would Lincoln have permitted a reported from the Boston Gazette to have been present. And this is where we have to approach spiritualism very carefully and shrewdly to understand how educated folks in the mid-19th Century understood it.
To some people, like Mary Todd Lincoln, it was a gravely serious matter. To others, like Abraham Lincoln, it may have been a novelty, an experiment; just something for liberal people to try. And I think Lincoln actually engineered the whole event for a very shrewd political purpose, which was that during the Civil War he wanted to project an image to the public of a Commander in Chief who was relaxed, who could sit back and try out a parlor room novelty, like other Americans were doing. A man who was not overly encumbered by the strains of wartime command. And I think Lincoln actually succeeded in achieving what he set out to do because the piece in the Boston Gazette, which is just enthralling and bizarre, was reprinted in newspapers all over the country—including the newspapers of the Confederacy. So you see this relaxed Abraham Lincoln joking and teasing his cabinet secretaries, you know, pitching these questions almost as he’s tipping back in his chair just sort of enjoying an experiment.
There is another record of a much graver, and a much more somber séance that was held in the Lincoln White House. It’s a more difficult to verify and accept because it’s left behind by a transmedium herself. And you don’t know when people are just making something up to simply make themselves look good. Nonetheless, the account has a certain verisimilitude and it squares with how spiritualism saw itself politically.
In this other account of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House, Lincoln is told by these spirit contacts that if he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had been hesitant to do, that would be the greatest act for which he would be remembered. And the interesting thing about this story is not whether it’s provable or not because there’s no way to verify it, but it does capture the political mood and ideals of spiritualism in the 19th Century.
Occultists in other countries had reputations for being people like the Russian monk Gregori Rasputin who wanted to manipulate people in power, take advantage of them, collect goodies and riches for themselves. American spiritualists wanted to be associated with social progress. They were interested in suffragism, abolitionism, temperance, which at the time was a progressive cause. And so, it’s very typical that a transmedium would want to take credit for having urged Lincoln or some other influential figure to do the right thing in the eyes of progressive reformers.
This is something we’ve lost in the history of spiritualism. We paint it as the story of fraud and chicanery, but we lose the idea that spiritualism was a political and social force in the country, like any other religious movement.
Question: Have the scientific innovations of the past century made occultism obsolete?
Mitch Horowitz: Science, as it reaches the public mind, has both served to discredit and unintentionally reaffirmed mystical ideas. During the age of the Enlightenment, certainly people that were interested in astrology divination, alchemy, mesmerism, were forced out of royal courts and mainstream universities—this light shone throughout Europe and people were interested in Newtonian mechanics never mind the fact that Newton himself also had a lifelong interest in alchemy. But the irony was that some people who were at the forefront of the Enlightenment were enamored of the religious experiments that occurred during the renaissance. But, regardless, their experiments and their rationalist philosophy removed occultism forever from respectable courts and universities.
That was mirrored to a degree in America—although institutions were much more independent in America. But if you move forward several generations, as you get into the 20th Century, really for the past 80 years, and really right now in our generation, experiments in quantum physics have reignited people’s religious or mystical imaginations. It’s almost impossible to overstate the strangeness and the peculiar nature, the astonishing nature of what’s been found in quantum physics experiments, say over the past eight decades. On an atomic scale, scientists are finding that particles seem not to appear until they’re observed. It’s suggestive of all kinds of incredible and extraordinary things and quantum physicists are rightly concerned that new agers, or people like me, should not be seizing upon these things to say, “Aha! Look! Evidence of everything the renaissance occultists were interested in.” Because quantum physicists themselves don’t understand this material. It’s the challenge of our age. It’s the mystery of our age. And the danger is that it gets overstated in this colloquial way and everybody uses it to say, “Well look, physics itself is proving that our minds create reality,” which is one of the cherished beliefs of occultism, particularly in this country as the mental healing movement and the positive thinking movement began to develop from the mid-19th Century and spread out across the entire country.
That is a hasty conclusion because, first of all, all the quantum physics experiments have occurred chiefly on the atomic scale and we are taught to believe that nature’s laws are consistent. But we still need proof because when you’re seeing something that extraordinary in a particle accelerator, it doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen to me in a corporate board meeting. And I encourage people not to make that leap. At the same time, I encourage quantum physicists not to disparage the new agers who are intelligently interested in this material. They should be interested in it. We all should be able to have a conversation without exaggerating what’s going on.
It’s a very precious time and moment, because also in physics department all across this country and universities, there is a generation that was educated in the 60s and 70s that is attaining positions of leadership and is able to have some influence over funding. Some of these physicists educated in the 60s and 70s are more open to the question of quantum physics than the previous generation.
The previous generation felt that physics is not concerned with meaning. Yes, you can observe extraordinary things in a particle accelerator, but leave it to the metaphysicians, leave it to the philosophers to discuss the meaning. That doesn’t belong in the lab.
The younger generation of physicists, classically trained, rigorously rational folks responds to that and says: “Well, but what is physics for if not to explain the nature of reality?” So I think in this generation we are going to see a blossoming of experiments and funding in the area of quantum physics. And that’s really something to watch. That’s the mystery of our age.
Question: Is occultism still relevant in modern life?
Mitch Horowitz: I believe it is relevant and it can have a concrete and positive impact. People need doorways to explore universal religious and ethical ideas. Pope John Paul II probably beatified more saints than any other Pope in history. He understood that we need modern doorways in order to drink from very, very deep wells. And I think occultism or new age spirituality or alternative spirituality, rather than steering people into dark corners very frequently, particularly in our country, steers people toward a renewed interest in universal religious and ethical ideas that they might never encounter if they didn’t find a modern and novel door to enter the tradition with.
In my book, I write quite a bit about an early 20th Century psychic named, Edgar Casey. He was claimed to be a medical clairvoyant who could diagnose people's diseases, people that he had never met, people who were far away. His readings, his psychical readings also contained a great deal of ethical material. There’s a whole generation of people who I think came in touch with all kinds of eastern and gospel-based religious ideas because they saw Edgar Casey as a person who shone a modern light, as a person who was able to offer some kind of invisible help in the contemporary world. That’s the experience of people who encounter saints in the Catholic Church. We need to see people who look and talk and live and act like us sometimes before we can turn a knob and open a door. That’s what occultism has always provided.
In the mid-19th century, occult figures in this country were confirming the most radically held views that came out of the reformation. They were confirming an idea that each individual had a kind of birthright to a non-mediated encounter with the divine. And I think spiritualism, mesmerism, the mental healing movement, provided some people with the most meaningful experiences of their lives. These movements also demanded that religion not be just a salvational force but that it be a healing force as well. And that’s probably the most significant legacy of occult in this country.
Throughout this nation and throughout many parts of the modern western world, churches and religious organizations are required to address the practical needs of people’s day-to-day existence. Salvation as an aim hasn’t been jettisoned, but people demand that hand-in-hand with that the church play a therapeutic role. So you find that a self-help spirituality that spans our religious landscape—from the new age to evangelical medium ministries, the most easily adaptable occult idea has been what we basically call the positive thinking movement, which in its earliest inception grew out of mesmerist circles in this country in the mid-19th century, in New England and the "burned over district."
The idea that the mind had causative power was a concept that came out of mesmerism. That has been reworked across our social landscape. You find it in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, you find it in business motivation seminars, it’s the stock and trade of life coaches. You also find that idea in ensconced in the sermons that a figure like Joel Osteen will give every Sunday morning to a television audience of tens of millions of people. It’s also a new age idea that you find expressed in “The Secret.”
This concept that it had to be cathartic, religion had to be healing, religion had to be practical was unheard of say 150 years ago. You didn’t hear of that within the Catholic Church, you didn’t hear of that within the Calvinist Protestantism, you started to hear of it within occult circles and eventually that became an American innovation whose roots became somewhat hidden, but it just spread throughout the entire culture.
I think that’s been a positive trend. I think therapeutic spirituality has largely been a help in the modern world. So the fact that people can approach religion with practical needs. And sometimes that they feel the need to approach religion through either novelty or in some kind of modern terms, that is an aspect of human nature. And I think that anything that helps people draw closer to some sort of a universalist or religious ethic is probably for the net good in the end. And to me that’s part of the role that alternative spirituality has played.
Question: What is the fascination with the Ouija Board?
Mitch Horowitz: The Ouija Board is probably the most successful and recognizable object that came out of the age of spiritualism in this country. It’s exactly the kind of object that American spiritualists were attracted to because it has this do-it-yourself quality. In the 1850s, 1860s, American spiritualists who believed ardently in what they were doing had an ideal that eventually talking to the dead would be as effortless and as ordinary and dinnertime conversation. So they set themselves to the task of figuring out: "How could this be accomplished? What method could we use?"
They experimented with transmediumship, automatic writing, there was a little plank called the planchette, which is French for “little plank,” that was used, you would sort of pencil into it, it was a little triangular table on ball bearings that was used for automatic writing. And eventually spiritualists hit on something they called the “Alphabet Board,” or the “Talking Board.” This is what became the Ouija Board. The earliest image of the Ouija Board appeared in the New York Tribune in the year 1886. There was an article about spiritualists in northern Ohio who were just entranced with this thing that they called the “Talking Board” that was supposed to be the easiest method yet for speaking to the other side.
And the newspaper featured a couple of drawings. One of them was just a little matchbox size drawing of the Ouija Board and is the spitting image of the board that we know today. They also showed a man and a woman using the “Talking Board,” balancing it together on their knees, which this is important because the “Talking Board” or the Ouija Board was also a very flirtatious experience for people in the Victorian Era. It gave men and women an excuse to sit knee to knee, maybe even join hands while they were consulting this magical board.
Now the interesting thing is, the Ouija Board was a homemade invention. The earliest record of it probably is in Ohio as seen in this 1886 newspaper report. Less than five years later, there were a group of novelty manufacturers in the city of Baltimore who seized upon the board and managed to bet a federal patent on it. So they got their patent and they called it the Ouija Board, the name is a source of mystery. Everybody has different stories about where I came from. Nobody really knows. But the invention just... the object just took off. It spread across the country. People were enthralled with it.
It became so popular that by 1922, the artist Norman Rockwell painted a satire of a man and woman using the Ouija Board which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. If you look at Rockwell’s satire, you see basically the same image that appeared back in 1886, the man and woman with their knees kind of bumping using the Ouija Board together; in Rockwell’s painting it’s sort of weaving this little flirtatious spell around them.
In 1966, the original Baltimore family that manufactured the Ouija Board sold it to Parker Brothers. And when Parker Brothers marketing the board for the first time the following year in 1967, it actually outsold Monopoly. That’s how popular the Ouija Board was at that time. And the late ‘60’s saw an occult revival sweeping through the nation. The Woodstock Generation was not only open to Eastern religious ideas, but they were open to all kids of occult ideas that were coming out of the age of spiritualism, that we coming from 19th Century movements in this country. One of them was called the theosophy movement, which had helped repopularize occult concepts in the late 19th Century. So the late 60s saw an occult revival, the Ouija Board was at the ready, and young people embraced it. Ouija circles sprang up in dormitories and interestingly enough, very often it was women who were conducting the nightly Ouija sessions, which unbeknownst to them was a reenactment of spiritualism from the mid 19th Century.
Question: Why is Ouija board less popular today than in the past?
Mitch Horowitz: The company Hasbro which owns Parker Brothers and manufactures it, does not seem terribly interested to talk about the board, they continue to manufacture it, but the last time I went on their Web site, they didn’t post a history of the Ouija Board even though they have histories for Twister and The Game of Life and other very story products that they sell.
People are scared of Ouija, they don’t want to attract boycotts from the Christian right, they don’t want to attract somebody who is going to commit some kind of a crime and claim, “Well, the Ouija Board told me to do it.” And that’s part of its history. We never seemed to have been able to digest the Ouija Board because it is an object from the age of spiritualism that has made it into slumber parties and basements and toy rooms all across the country and yet there’s this very frightening and weird urban mythology around the Ouija Board. Ask anyone, and they have some stranger story of being a kid and using the Ouija board and the lights flicked on and off, or they heard mysterious or ghostly knocks at their door. There are some people in occult history who warned against using the Ouija Board, who said: "This is a dangerous door to the unconscious. Don’t approach this thing."
So we like to make fun of it, we’re sort of frightened of it. There’s nostalgia around it, but the fact is, in some ways it reflects the success of spiritualism.
Question: Is there consensus among scientists about how the Ouija Board works?
Mitch Horowitz: Well the most common explanation that you’ll find is it’s just a tool of auto-suggestion. We are just using it to act out communications from our deepest unconsciousness. There are serious psychical researches who looked at the Ouija Board in the 1960’s and that was the conclusion they came up with. It’s as reasonable conclusion as any, except when you talk to people who use it and, you know, you hear about the events they describe, they’ll have none of it. So, it seems to be an object that’s just going to withhold its mysteries from us.
Question: Is Jay-Z an occultist?
Mitch Horowitz: No. He’s a genius who has a very shrewd eye for kind of oppositional imagery in our culture. And he uses these things and he understands the magnetism of these symbols. You know, symbols like the pentagram and the eye in the pyramid or astrological symbols, they do have a certain magnetic power. They have a pull on us. When people look at a crucifix or when people look at a Star of David, they feel something. There’s some kind of pull. It may just be a matter of conditioning, but the fact is, when you use the eye in the pyramid, it’s a magnetic symbol. It possesses something.
And I think when you’re using imagery that comes from the ancient world or that comes from Renaissance-era occultism, there is a little something going on there. We’ve never quite figured out a way to digest the image of the pentagram. Some people are really attracted to it, other people recoil from it. Jay-Z understands this and when he uses these images in his videos, on his clothing, and in other places, you know, he realizes that we are people who think in images and that you can take an image and you get a response from people. I was asked at one point whether I thought Jay-Z was a Freemason because of some of the images that appear in his videos. One of his videos also shows an image of Mao Tse Tung, I don’t think he’s an Agrarian Socialist, but he understand in the same way that street artists do that you can take these images and they touch an emotional cord in us that sometimes is very subliminal, even mysterious.
I don’t think he’s an occultist, but I do think he is probably a genius in terms of using imagery.
Recorded on October 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the author of "Occult America."
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Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.
- The Chinese Room thought experiment is designed to show how understanding something cannot be reduced to an "input-process-output" model.
- Artificial intelligence today is becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to learning algorithms but still fails to demonstrate true understanding.
- All humans demonstrate computational habits when we first learn a new skill, until this somehow becomes understanding.
It's your first day at work, and a new colleague, Kendall, catches you over coffee.
"You watch the game last night?" she says. You're desperate to make friends, but you hate football.
"Sure, I can't believe that result," you say, vaguely, and it works. She nods happily and talks at you for a while. Every day after that, you live a lie. You listen to a football podcast on the weekend and then regurgitate whatever it is you hear. You have no idea what you're saying, but it seems to impress Kendall. You somehow manage to come across as an expert, and soon she won't stop talking football with you.
The question is: do you actually know about football, or are you imitating knowledge? And what's the difference? Welcome to philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room."
The Chinese Room
Searle's argument was designed as a critique of what's called a "functionalist" view of mind. This is the philosophy that argues that our mind can be explained fully by what role it plays, or in other words, what it does or what "function" it has.
One form of functionalism sees the human mind as following an "input-process-output" model. We have the input of our senses, the process of our brains, and a behavioral output. Searle thought this was at best an oversimplification, and his Chinese Room thought experiment goes to show how human minds are not simply biological computers. It goes like this:
Imagine a room, and inside is John, who can't speak a word of Chinese. Outside the room, a Chinese person sends a message into the room in Chinese. Luckily, John has an "if-then" book for Chinese characters. For instance, if he gets <你好吗>, the proper reply is <我还好>. All John has to do is follow his instruction book.
The Chinese speaker outside of the room thinks they're talking to someone inside who knows Chinese. But in reality, it's just John with his fancy book.
What is understanding?
Does John understand Chinese? The Chinese Room is, by all accounts, a computational view of the mind, yet it seems that something is missing. Truly understanding something is not an "if-then" automated response. John is missing that sinking in feeling, the absorption, the bit of understanding that's so hard to express. Understanding a language doesn't work like this. Humans are not Google Translate.
And yet, this is how AIs are programmed. A computer system is programmed to provide a certain output based on a finite list of certain inputs. If I double click the mouse, I open a file. If you type a letter, your monitor displays tiny black squiggles. If we press the right buttons in order, we win at Mario Kart. Input — Process — Output.
Can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
But AIs don't know what they're doing, and Google Translate doesn't really understand what it's saying, does it? They're just following a programmer's orders. If I say, "Will it rain tomorrow?" Siri can look up the weather. But if I ask, "Will water fall from the clouds tomorrow?" it'll be stumped. A human would not (although they might look at you oddly).
A fun way to test just how little an AI understands us is to ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." Unsurprisingly, you won't get what you want.
The Future of AI
To be fair, the field of artificial intelligence is just getting started. Yes, it's easy right now to trick our voice assistant apps, and search engines can be frustratingly unhelpful at times. But that doesn't mean AI will always be like that. It might be that the problem is only one of complexity and sophistication, rather than anything else. It might be that the "if-then" rule book just needs work. Things like "the McDonald's test" or AI's inability to respond to original questions reveal only a limitation in programming. Given that language and the list of possible questions is finite, it's quite possible that AI will be able to (at the very least) perfectly mimic a human response in the not too distant future.
What's more, AIs today have increasingly advanced learning capabilities. Algorithms are no longer simply input-process-output but rather allow systems to search for information and adapt anew to what they receive.
A notorious example of this occurred when a Microsoft chat bot started spouting bigotry and racism after "learning" from what it read on Twitter. (Although, this might just say more about Twitter than AI.) Or, more sinister perhaps, two Facebook chat bots were shut down after it was discovered that they were not only talking to each other but were doing so in an invented language. Did they understand what they were doing? Who's to say that, with enough learning and enough practice, an AI "Chinese Room" might not reach understanding?
Can imitation become understanding?
We've all been a "Chinese Room" at times — be it talking about sports at work, cramming for an exam, using a word we didn't entirely know the meaning of, or calculating math problems. We can all mimic understanding, but it also begs the question: can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
The old adage "fake it, 'till you make it" has been proven true over and over. If you repeat an action enough times, it becomes easy and habitual. For instance, when you practice a language, musical instrument, or a math calculation, then after a while, it becomes second nature. Our brain changes with repetition.
So, it might just be that we all start off as Chinese Rooms when we learn something new, but this still leaves us with a pertinent question: when, how, and at what point does John actually understand Chinese? More importantly, will Siri or Alexa ever understand you?