Monday, 21 December 2015
Americans have a useful expression, "woo-woo", which we Brits haven't widely adopted, yet. This may be because we are less susceptible to woo-woo phenomena, or simply prefer not to discuss woo-woo in public. Yet. Essentially, woo-woo encompasses the whole field of the paranormal, the New Agey, the spooky, and the spine-tinglingly coincidental. It's a noun, an adjective, an adverb, possibly other things, too. Obviously, it's generally used in a dismissive, derogatory way: "Then she got all woo-woo on me, man, with that crystal crap, so I split".
As a youngster, I used to be highly susceptible to woo-woo, in all its forms. There was a lot of it about. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw that first wave of New Age publishing extend its reach into the most ordinary High Street bookshops. Despite the fact that much of this material was actually republished "classics" from earlier nineteenth- and twentieth-century waves of woo-woo it did not smell particularly old and musty (poo-woo?). In fact, it seemed pretty fresh and new, probably because "old and musty" was deeply fashionable back then. Nu-woo, you might say. Ordinary kids could wander into W.H. Smith and get their hands on arcane texts like The Old Straight Track, The Prophet, or Zen in the Art of Archery. Not to mention new-fangled seeker-porn like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. While my more serious-minded contemporaries were reading One-Dimensional Man and The Female Eunuch – also freely available then in W.H. Smith – I was deep into the oeuvres of Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Daniken. I know, but I have never claimed to be more than an idiot.
A big influence on many of us were those new, larger, sleeker "trade paperbacks" from imprints like Picador and Abacus, which specialised in reprinting cult classics and occult titles, one of which was The Devil's Picturebook, a guide to the use and symbolism of tarot cards, which made a big impression on my adolescent brain. In 1971/2 I actually began to design my own tarot pack in linocut, but never got much further than the more attractive cards in the "major arcana". All that survives of the project is the battered sheet of proofs below. I did get hold of a proper full pack, though – I can't remember where, but I doubt it was in W.H. Smith – and made the interesting discovery that impressionable young women were excited by the prospect of having a card-reading, even from a shameless charlatan like me. Well, before the internet we had to make our own entertainment.
Woo-woo is not the same thing as religion, or even "spirituality". In fact, religion is society's way of steering people away from and putting a lid on woo-woid experiences, which are regarded as toxic and socially destabilising. Religion, paradoxically, has always had a problem with mystics and seers. Oh, and witches, especially witches. You get the woo-woo shivers from walking through a graveyard at night, not from kneeling in church. You get the woo-woo chills from a particularly uncanny coincidence, not from the fact that St. George's day and Shakespeare's (probable) birthday are both on 23rd April. Though Shakespeare also dying on the 23rd is a little woo-woo.
These shivers and chills are a real experience, not a theory or a dogma, although – being real, yet inexplicable and democratically available to all – they attract the regulatory attention of both the theory and the dogma police. But, however compelling they may seem, they are also superficial experiences which, no matter how assiduously pursued, lead nowhere. Sadly, there are no spirits, demons, fairies, or angels out there. Martial arts experts cannot fly or plug their fists into mysterious forces. The elves have not hidden your car keys. Not stepping on cracks won't stop your granny dying; but coming across an unopened Christmas card from her in a drawer, years after she has died, will really raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Woooo!
Photography was not immune to the Prog Era woo-woo outbreak. A classic piece of photographic woo-woo is Bea Nettles' Mountain Dream Tarot (1970), now insanely collectible if you can find an original set that hasn't been torn into roach material. Duane Michals invoked woo-woo themes and tropes in his serial photographic narratives, leavened by a sense of humour usually missing from full-on woo-wooery (Take One and See Mount Fujiyama, 1976, is a memorable example). Minor White's anthologies for Aperture, Celebrations (1976) and Light7 (1968), are pure photographic woo-woo, and Jerry Uelsmann has made a lifetime career out of navigating the uncertain borderland between woo-woo and surrealism. Indeed, "surrealism" might be said to be the respectable face of woo-woo, allegedly deploying our sense of the uncanny to explore the unconscious. Which is bit like saying my use of mind-altering drugs is a serious experiment, whereas yours is mere juvenile hedonism.
Which brings us to the real charlatans. In a comment on a recent post (Bullshit Workshops) my attention was drawn to the Esalen Institute. Now, I'd heard of Esalen, because of a long-standing interest in Gestalt Therapy; Esalen was where Fritz Perls began to integrate Zen elements into his psychiatric practice. I'd also heard of it because anything associated with Big Sur used to pique my interest – it seemed to be one of those places where certain counter-cultural ley-lines converged, and besides, Richard Brautigan's A Confederate General from Big Sur was one of those much-read Picador titles mentioned above. But I'd never actually looked to see what went on in there.
Now, I'm not one to put down seekers after spiritual enlightenment, nor do I sneer at marginally woo-woo activities like massage (mmm...) or yoga (though I do blame poorly-taught yoga for a persistent musculoskeletal problem in my neck). I'm even prepared to have someone attempt to awaken my Kundalini by means of tantric sex (oh, go on then...), provided we accept we're talking metaphorically, here, and there isn't really a snake having a snooze in my lower spine. But reading the list of workshops currently on offer at Esalen just gave me the giggles.
How about How to think like Leonardo da Vinci? ("Leonardo invented the parachute before anyone could fly. Imagine what you will accomplish with that kind of innovative thinking!"). Or what about Visionseeker: shamanic cosmology? ("Note: Bring a rattle, a drum, a notebook or sketchpad, a set of oil or chalk pastels, a bandanna or eyeshade, and a light blanket. Please refrain from alcohol during the workshop."). Or maybe I am the word: the energetics of consciousness? ("Paul Selig is a conscious channel, intuitive, and empath."). In the words of that great teacher, Proverbial Wisdom: A fool and his money are soon parted.
But it was the workshop leaders' photos that made me realise how far I have travelled since my woo-woo years. What a creepy bunch! Those smug, practised, beatific smiles, those crinkly, joyous, calculating eyes... All turned on just for the camera; the contemporary scamster's equivalent of strong eye-contact and a firm handshake. And, naturally, most of them have a book or two to sell.
I would no more put my sanity and well-being in the hands of those snake-oil merchants than I would walk widdershins through a churchyard at midnight on 21st December.