Friday, April 17. Heading up 12th Avenue toward Pier 92, site of the “Natural Health & Fitness Expo ’98,” a major annual New Age health-holistic gadget gangbang of a trade show, I’m trying to remember just what it was that ever attracted me to New Age culture in the first place. I know it initially had something to do with a reaction against the know-it-all arrogance of doctors, so many of whom are deeply threatened and hostile if one questions them about anything. The ones who treat patients at best like children, and at worst the way auto mechanics treat cars. So there was that.
And then there was the still not-to-be-neglected hedonistic appeal of New Age culture for those who have a weakness for massage, hot springs and a certain type of ethereal woman who could often be found giving massages at hot springs (see Robert Altman’s Three Women , for instance).
So there was that . And then there was the occasional intriguing speculative philosopher like Rupert Sheldrake in biology and Fritjof Capra in physics, whose gnostic heresies at the very least challenged orthodox scientific visions from a genuinely informed perspective. And there were the smart, literate thinkers and paradigm-shifters centered around Stewart Brand and what was once called Co-Evolution Quarterly , now reincarnated as Whole Earth Review on the West Coast, most of whom don’t deserve to be tarred by the New Age label at all.
But once you got beyond that, jeez, the kinds of lame and inane pseudoscience, quackery, brain-dead mishmash of mush you had to put up with. The naïve stupidity, the cynical snake-oil cupidity; the indiscriminate acceptance of any old medicine-show nostrum into the New Age tent; the smarmy self-assurance about their own remedies that differs so little from the arrogance of orthodox doctors; the vicious and pernicious blame-the-victim vision of disease (you got cancer because you didn’t meditate enough, therefore you deserve it); the phobic fear of impurities and impure people , of complexity and irony; the passive-aggressive hostilities beneath the surface insistence on serenity.
So why go to this trade show, why care at all? Well, for one thing, New Age notions, nostrums and ideologies-however ridiculous many may seem-are becoming a kind of unofficial sub rosa ideology and theology to millions of Americans, accepted uncritically because few with any critical faculties take them seriously enough to challenge them anymore (except the worthy Skeptics Society). So it’s worth keeping tabs on what the new buzzwords and fads are. Still, I wondered as I arrived at the pier whether I would be able to find anything to like about this latest New Age Renaissance Faire. Looking at some recent New Age literature in the days leading up to my expedition hadn’t diminished my concern.
Take the announcement for the expo itself, which appears as a full-page ad in its sponsor magazine, Natural Health & Fitness . “New York Is Divided,” it proclaims, and then divides the page into two columns: the Unhealthy and Healthy. On the left, under Unhealthy, we learn one out of three Americans dies of cancer. While that sounds dubious in itself, opposite that, in the Healthy column, we learn “Approx. 100 percent of Healthy & Fit Americans don’t have cancer.”
Well, duh !
This is followed by the further enlightened revelation that “the majority of Unhealthy Americans are tired, sick and dissatisfied” while “Approx. 100 percent of Healthy & Fit Americans have unlimited energy and live long and happy lives.”
There’s something particularly offensive about that last one. Like, what about the healthy and fit Americans who get run over by trucks, or die in plane crashes and other tragedies that are utterly unrelated to their tofu consumption and which no amount of yoga and meditation classes could have prevented? It is this kind of thinking, this absence of irony, this belief that the purity of one’s precious bodily fluids can insulate one from tragedy, from unhappiness-that bad things happen only to people who eat white sugar-that emblematizes the juvenile naïveté of New Age thinking and feeds into its cruel blame-the-victim ethos.
Two other themes emerged from my brief review of New Age literature in the week before the expo at the pier. One is the continuing focus on the colon as the seat of all evil. Endless ads for high colonics, for colon-cleansing herbs, for “spring cleaning” for the colon. My favorite was for high-colonic providers who called themselves “colon educators.” I like the refinement that brings to the messy business.
The poor colon! It’s just another organ trying to do a job, right? But in New Age terms, it’s become the root of all evil, one that needs constant gouging out, purging, internal scouring, intrusive “irrigation” (high-colonic enemas) by “colon educators.” (Doesn’t that conjure up a classroom of Bart Simpson-like colons being given remedial instruction by strict disciplinarian teachers?)
While the colon is an old friend in New Age culture, a familiar root-of-all-evil villain, the new trend I spotted in the literature is the harmonic convergence of the New Age and the old original root of all evil: money. The new wave in New Age culture is legitimizing-giving the fig leaf of New Age spirituality to-the pursuit of wealth and career advancement. Just about every New Age guru of any persuasion (even including “colon educators,” I bet) must have his or her seven (or 10) “spiritual laws” for material success. Consider a feature in the May-June issue of New Age magazine called “You Biz,” which advocates using tarot cards to maximize the profitability of “the brand called You,” and which promotes the “10 core essentials of business and personal growth.”
Much of the advice in the “You Biz” piece is very worthy, no doubt: Work at something you believe in, put your whole heart into it, etc. But doesn’t the ugly commodification of language and people used to sell this advice (the “You Biz” author has a book he’s flogging) defeat the purpose? He gives us not just “You Biz” but “brand You” and “the business of You.” Does the use of such “you-phemisms,” if I may coin a phrase for this hideous jargon, really reflect or encourage a higher consciousness, or drag the spiritual down to the level of the huckster?
You’re probably wondering whether someone this disillusioned would be able to keep an open mind at a New Age expo, whether I could find anything to like. But, in fact, I was surprised to discover, almost as soon as I walked into the main exhibition space of the pier-in the midst of the familiar profusion of booths offering meditation tapes, aromatherapy oils, juicers, magnetic foot supports, magic powders and pills, electronic massage devices, electronic shiatsu wands, “electronic shield” medallions to protect against the dangerous rays from everyday devices like battery-operated watches, iridology analysis microscopes, aura-imaging systems, cancer treatments, holistic dentistry, New Age face lifts and baldness remedies-one product I’d never seen before, one I found genuinely intriguing: the True Mirror.
I’m not sure exactly what makes the True Mirror New Age, except that it is an alternative way of looking at the self. Through the tricky arrangement of mirrored surfaces inside a box, it presents to you an image of yourself that is “true” rather than mirror-image reversed. It shows you, in other words, the way you actually look to others, rather than the way you customarily see yourself. I found it fascinating, not just looking at my own image, but reading the literature the True Mirror Company (based in Manhattan on Fulton Street) was offering at its booth. It’s filled with raves from people who just love what they see in the mirror for the first time. “For the first time in my life, I like what I see when I look at me,” says one. “Wow! I’m beautiful,” says another. “So this is the real me? I’ve been searching for years now!” exclaims another. “It’s wonderful. Am I really that beautiful?” wonders another enraptured commentator.
It makes you wonder how much of the world’s troubles stem from people walking around all grumpy from looking at ugly conventional mirror-images of themselves. I thought it was the first genuinely new and thought-provoking New Age product I’d come across in a long time, and the second most fascinating phenomenon I’d come across at the expo. It paled only in comparison to a bizarre new New Age ritual: ear candling.
Have you ever heard of ear candling? It’s going to sound strange if you haven’t, but according to the newsletter-pamphlet put out by the Midas-Well colon care salon, it’s an ancient technique that “originated with the Egyptians … it involves the use of a hollow candle which looks like a straw coated with wax. You gently place the candle on the edge of a person’s ear and light the other end. The flame creates a relative vacuum in the ear and sucks out the poisons, old wax and fungus …”
Or, as the headline on the pamphlet puts it, “Amazing ear-cleaning technique helps you … get rid of impacted candida infections, fungus and two to three inches of black, hardened earwax.”
What makes this bizarre-sounding procedure holistic or New Age? After studying the pamphlet, which claims to present an “exclusive interview with a person who has been practicing this technique since the 1960’s” whose identity is concealed “to protect him from persecution from the F.D.A. and the medical societies,” after immersing myself in the rhetoric and the claims of ear candling, I came to realize the breakthrough significance of ear candling for the future of the New Age.
Ear candling is portrayed as a method for removing impacted toxins from the body, the supposedly huge deposits of wax and fungus hidden deep in the ear canals. Candida is not just a yeast infection, it’s the invisible hidden cause of a vast range of mental and physical degenerative conditions in New Age “science.” Candida cleansing has become a kind of cult in which many New Agers are scared into hooking themselves up to IV lines for weekly intravenous infusions of anti-candida drugs; some even go so far as to have blood transfusions to eliminate what they believe are the far-reaching occult and malevolent effects of invisible internal yeast infections.
Reading the exclusive interview with the clandestine ear candler, with its rhetoric of impacted toxicity (“I got a bowlful of material out of one of the ears of my brother-in-law and even saw spiral worms coming out”), I began to realize that it’s the same rhetoric used by those who do high colonics-about all the impacted toxins they pull out of the colon with their extra-strength, force-fed enemas. And it suddenly struck me: The ear is the colon of the future , the new frontier for the New Age, the ear is the colon of the head . And it is in the rhetoric of the clandestine ear candler that the real, deep truth of New Age culture comes to the surface, just like those spiral worms that emerged from the depths of the ear candler’s brother-in-law’s impacted ear canals.
It’s there in the ear candler’s description of his own ear candling, of his life-and-death struggle with the evil candida organism that had impacted itself inside him.
“I remember I had candida when I came back from Australia,” the clandestine candler says. “And when I had my ears candled, it was so painful. Because the fungus fought to not get out, not be removed. It was like a living whirlwind in my head. It just literally fought to not come out of my head.”
Consider the tone and imagery of that passage: a demonic being struggling, fighting against extraction like a demon fighting against the imprecations of an exorcist priest. Precisely like that. What’s being described is not the extraction of earwax, but the exorcism of evil spirits. At the heart of the New Age is the age-old superstitious fear of demonic possession.
While some might say it’s unfair to seize upon the primitive ear candling ritual as an emblem for an entire culture, I’d say that it is nothing less than the True Mirror of the New Age.