“In the United States,” wrote novelist and poet Jim Harrison in 1976, “it is a curious habit of ours to wait for the future when it has happened already.” Thirty years on, how much deeper is that swoon of postponement, and how much more pressing the crisis. In weather systems, in belief systems, the planet condenses with rage; the blandest recital of the facts can shake the air like a Yeatsian prophecy. Faces averted, we peck out text messages. At the political level the most complex issues are debated in the style of barking dogs, while at the counter of your local Starbucks a man is placing an order as nuanced and sophisticated as a 17th-century sonnet. And on the street the Hummers roll, driven by small, blond college girls, as if America had invaded itself.
THE GREAT UNRAVELING: The difference between today's New Agers and the old ones is the former's fear of an imminent system crash
But if the future won’t stop happening, neither will the past. Because here’s both the good news and the bad: the ’60s never ended. That decade’s chaotic drive toward collective rebirth — stalled, dissipated, betrayed, backlashed, and broken down — was not (it turns out) the endpoint, but the augury. “The Sixties,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin), by phone from New York City, “were an attempted voyage of initiation on a mass-cultural level, but at that point it couldn’t be completed. The maps weren’t there, there were no guides, and a lot of people kind of lost it.” Pinchbeck, a thirtysomething former journalist who has transformed himself — with the help of mind-ripping pharmaceuticals and organic hallucinogens like iboga and ayahuasca — into a multi-disciplinary critic of the “design problems” in Western civilization, is standing by for the next stage. “There’s some kind of process of assimilation that required those currents which came out so powerfully in the ’60s then to go underground and become subliminal,” he says. “But they’ve had a major effect on people in the West, whether through access to indigenous shamanism or in the extraordinary growth of yoga, and in a way they’ve been preparing the container so that if we were to go through another kind of initiatory level, there would be people ready to hold it together.”
Shamanism? Yoga? Welcome to the New New Age — the just-in-time resurgence of the holistic, anti-materialist worldview, garbed in esoterica, brandishing its own style of drugs and music. And brace yourself for a major paradigm shift: at the vanguard of the armies of transformation is … Sting! “Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012,” he blurbs on the book jacket, “is a dazzling kaleidoscopic journey through the quixotic hinterlands of consciousness.” Yes indeed, someone got his message in a bottle. “I became friends with Sting after my last book [Breaking Open the Head],” says Pinchbeck. “He got in touch with me and I actually stayed with him in his house in Italy.
“He’s had contact with indigenous shamanism, and he’s aware of the importance of the material. He’s kind of like an elder statesman, and he’s been giving me a lot of support.”
The sins of the old New Age, of course, are still with us: Celtic muzak, little polished rune-rocks, bumper stickers that say THE GODDESS IS ALIVE AND MAGIC IS IN THE AIR! Seeking balm for the psychic wounds they had sustained in the ’60s, ex-hippies opted en masse for a sort of consoling and watered-down paganism: ancient energies were domesticated, to the point where almost anyone could have a print from the Mahbarata on their kitchen wall, or an Odinist living downstairs. “The original New Age was a little bit on the flimsy side,” says Pinchbeck. “Channelling, UFOs … all that stuff was kind of floating out there. What I’m trying to do with the new book is to show that it’s possible for someone with a rational modern intellect to go through this material in a reasonable way, and to integrate Western philosophy with this shamanic/psychedelic worldview.”
What most viscerally separates the New New Agers from the old is their crisp and eager apprehension of imminent system crash — what our inheritors, stumping for food in the poisoned mud flats, may well call The Great Unraveling. Take, for example, the words of eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, in a recent interview. Asked if he truly wants civilization as we know it to fall, Jensen responds: “If civilization had come down 200 years ago, the people who live here would still be able to support themselves. But if it comes down in another 30 years, 50 years, 60 years … So even from the purely selfish human perspective, yeah, it would be good for civilization to end. The sooner this civilization goes, the better, because there’ll be MORE LEFT.”