California Cosmology

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Last month as I was reading Chas Clifton’s book Her Hidden Children, I came across the curious phrase “California Cosmology.” Chas uses the term in his discussion of West Coast feminist Witchcraft’s influence on Paganism as a whole and cites Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon as the source of the phrase, so when I had some free time I went back to Hutton’s book to chase down the reference.

Hutton uses the phrase when he describes Starhawk’s influence on the Craft. I won’t go into his whole analysis of her particular brand of political and spiritual synthesis (though it is certainly worth a read), but will quote from his description (pg 350-1) of “California Cosmology,” a phrase he attributes to Alston Chase:

This was a development of nineteenth-century American pantheism, that strain of thought associated with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, which relied on the twin propositions that God is good and that God’s spirit is inherent in the natural world. To these thinkers, therefore, humanity could be brought closer to God by a closer relationship with that world…

What Chase has characterized as the Californian contribution to these ideas was made in the 1970s by academics based at Berkeley, Stanford, and the various divisions of the University of California—above all by Fritjof Capra, Theodore Roszak, Bill Devall…Marilyn Ferguson, Jacob Needleman,…Alan Watts, Gary Snyder,…and William Everson.

Hutton then quotes directly from Alston Chase’s 1987 book, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s first National Park. Chase, a former philosophy professor, current curmudgeon and interesting thinker, is an even more enjoyable writer than Hutton. Consider how Chase characterizes these influential Western writers, who:

buzzed around a flowerbed of exotic religions and an eclectic cornucopia of offbeat ideas—Tao, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Hua-Yen Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Gnosticism, physics, Heideggerian phenomenology, Jungian archetypal symbolism, Yoga, biofeedback, Transcendental Meditation, psychedelic drugs, self-awareness exercises, psychotherapy, pre-Socratic philosophy, the ‘Inhumanism’ of Robinson Jeffers, Gandhian pacifism, animism, panpsychism, alchemy, ritual magic.

It all sounds intoxicating to hear him describe it, but there is acid on the tip of his pen so the reader is left wondering whether it is all too good to be true. Since it is this mindset which Chase also critiques in his book for destroying the wilderness it sought to preserve, it would seem that the idealism represented by California Cosmology is overall a bad thing, at least to Alston Chase.

Hutton is a little more even, or perhaps carefully journalistic, about not ascribing judgment to the movement which turned British Wicca from a conservative upper class pursuit to an Americanized den of radical politics and environmentalism. One gets the feeling from his writing that he is eternally amused by just about everyone and everything, at least in public. In private I suspect it is another matter.

The idea is older than Chase’s writing, though; the Beat poet William Everson recognized the unique subculture of which he was a part and coined the term Archetype West in 1974 to describe the Pacific Coast literary scene. George Leonard said that the human potential movement, itself a product of California Cosmology thinking, would in the end be considered a literary movement because so many of its key players were primarily writers. And Hutton, though he pokes many holes in Starhawk’s thinking, also gives her credit for being a great writer.

I have more to say about California Cosmology, but it has taken me an entire blog post to just list my references for it. I considered naming the term only briefly and moving right into polemic, but this is such an important cultural reference point in my lifetime that I think it is worth sourcing in greater depth.

Besides, as a child of the phenomenon myself it is hard to separate the strands of its influence enough to figure out what to say next about California Cosmology. In general, I am for it. Except when it gets so hideous and embarrassing that I am against it. How’s that for a thumbnail sketch? Meanwhile, as I collect my thoughts I would love to hear other people’s opinions, references or random insights.

8 thoughts on “California Cosmology

  1. Pandora

    Ha! I’m greatly chuffed that I’ve been shaped by California Cosmology.

    I can trace its influences in my academic writing; I’m working on a book on the spiritual dimensions of performance space, and the foundational ideas come from my experience in the melange that was San Francisco Wicca of the 80’s.

    But don’t tell the dean, K?

  2. Moonroot

    “California Cosmology… In general, I am for it. Except when it gets so hideous and embarrassing that I am against it.”

    Love this comment – I know exactly what you mean! Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on the subject.

  3. deborah oak

    Anne, thank you! This cultural history is fascinating. I’m thinking about all the stuff that’s come out of Esalen that also infuses our cosmology. Years back when people would say that Reclaiming was a Celtic tradition I’d say “No, it’s an American tradition…a melting pot of stuff, and even more, a Bay Area tradition”. Reclaiming couldn’t have come from anywhere but here.

  4. ms flowers

    i adore san francisco. Gosh I remember when i was 16 and seeing the news items of the hippies on the streets, the slogans, the hope and freedom it seemed to represent. Scott Mc’s if you are going to san francisco be sure to wear etc etc use to have me in tears. actually it still does!
    and now i see it as my spiritual home, where i feel at home, at ease, where people i respect magically live and of course i am blessed by getting over a few times each year. Thanks goodness for you all there who started this wonderful tradition, i respect you all x ann f

  5. Anne Post author

    Oak, funny you should mention Esalen. I have on my coffee table the new book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal, which I plan on reviewing here in the near future. Esalen plays a huge part in California Cosmology; in fact the quote by George Leonard was from Kripal’s book. Especially with that early, formative tale about why Reclaiming never got on well with Esalen, this is a particularly relevant strand of our history as well.

  6. Helen/Hawk

    This feels like a fascinating introduction………

    I find myself thinking “and the problem is ??” both because, yes I’m here in CA, and because it isn’t clear to me that there IS a problem.

    Maybe it’s these CA glasses I’m wearing…………..

  7. Pingback: Blog o’ Gnosis » Blog Archive » Hotel California Cosmology

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