Thursday, June 5, 2014

Arthur Versluis's "American Gurus"

Arthur Versluis, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Professor in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has published numerous books and articles. Versluis is the founding editor of Esoterica, and co-editor of JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, American Gurus: From Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, and reported the following:
American Gurus covers a vast range of American literature and religious history, beginning with American Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the seminal poet Walt Whitman, and journeying all the way to the many contemporary American guru-figures (many derived from Hinduism) that dot the religious landscape today. On page 99 of that journey, we’ve already made our way to the Beat movement, in particular to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and their circle, which also included William S. Burroughs. We’ve discovered that Jack Kerouac asserted a kind of spontaneous or immediatist mysticism derived from Buddhism, and that Burroughs was a surly and sinister critic of his friends’ turn toward Asian religions, and toward Buddhism in particular. The word “immediatism” is important to understanding the argument of the book—an immediatist mystic asserts that enlightenment or spiritual illumination is spontaneously available to us.

After this point in the book, we turn from the Beat literature and its particular brand of immediatist mysticism to Timothy Leary and the impact of LSD on the hippie era, which also was characterized by immediatism. Indeed, not much could be more immediatist than the mysticism inspired by taking a pill. We also take a look at Stephen Gaskin, pied piper of the hippies, and leader of a caravan of buses across America, and at some religions conceived more or less as jokes, like Discordianism, (which “has no dogmas, but one catma”) and other forms of what I call “spiritual anarchism” that developed during and after the 1960s. It is not until late in the book that we get to the network of contemporary American satsang teachers that have proliferated, the most extreme of which teach what seems to be a kind of nihilism.

All of this is to say that American Gurus covers a vast terrain in a succinct way, and it’s a rich tapestry of brilliant and sometimes outlandish figures, works, and movements. Page 99 is a midway point in the journey, landing us right in the middle of the Beat movement of the 1950s, halfway on our journey toward the teachers or would-be teachers of spontaneous enlightenment or, we may put it, “enlightenment.”
Learn more about American Gurus at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Arthur Versluis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue