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.