What You Can't Learn Collecting Esoteric Books - Believer Magazine

What You Can’t Learn Collecting Esoteric Books

The Marlboro Man, How to Live Life Like a Lord without Really Trying, Zionist Conspiracies, Rickshaw-Dodging, Women as Figs on a Pumpkin Vine, Aztec Codices, Bisexual Gods, Alchemically Bound Books, Einstein’s Secret Doctrine
by Andrea Richards
Photograph of Vernie Johnson courtesy of Lillian Wright

What You Can’t Learn Collecting Esoteric Books

Andrea Richards
21 Snaps

Occult Doubles: Two Men, Two Voyages, Two Books

No person did more for the dissemination of occult wisdom in America than Manly P. Hall, who popularized much of what we now call New Age philosophy long before the age of Aquarius began. A Canadian who in the early 1920s found his way, like so many mystics, to Los Angeles, Hall was a self-taught lecturer on a variety of subjects, from reincarnation to freemasonry, astrology to psychology. During his lifetime, Hall delivered thousands of public talks and authored more than fifty books covering a wide range of arcane subjects; he also managed to toss off a script for Warner Bros., befriend Bela Lugosi, and establish a nonprofit society, the Philosophical Research Society (PRS), which would later develop its own press and university. Though relegated to the fringes of intellectual history, Hall’s mission to “bring mysticism down to earth” made him one of the most interesting and colorful characters of the twentieth century, as Louis Sahagun’s terrific biography, Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall, attests.

Sahagun describes Hall as “a huge avocado of a man” whose theat­rical looks and black capes transmitted a magus-like air. The billowing clothes also worked to conceal Hall’s ample midsection, the product of a gluttonous addiction to sugary sweets. While the image may have been calculated (film-studio photographers were used to shoot his publicity photos), Hall’s interest in ancient myths, rituals, and symbols was authentic. ­After his introduction to the occult sciences through a chance encounter with a phrenologist on the Santa Monica Pier, the eighteen-year-old Hall was a quick study. Within six months, he was lecturing on ­human auras and reincarnation; soon, a six-hundred-member metaphysical church appointed him pastor. Thanks to a photographic memory, Hall could lecture for a solid ninety minutes without notes. Along with elucidating forgotten philosophical systems and extracting practical applications for these ideologies, Hall threw in jokes and spoke to current events. A charismatic man whose looks were as curious as his subject matter, Hall had an authoritative demeanor that drew a slew of followers, fans, and benefactors. Fortunately for him, two of these supporters were the wealthy heiresses of a vast oil fortune who, as Sahagun explained it to me in a phone interview, “told Hall when he was twenty-­one years old, ‘Young man, you will never worry about money.’ And he never did.”

With his finances secure, Hall devoted his life to his studies and teaching. The heiresses encouraged their beneficiary to travel and ignited in him a passion for collecting rare books and stamps, hobbies he pursued throughout his long life (Hall lived to be eighty-nine). Thanks to the duo’s generosity, Hall was able to embark on a trip around the world in 1923 to visit the cultural capitals of Europe and Asia, making stops in Japan, Korea, China, Burma, India, Egypt, Israel, England, and Italy along the way. During this time, Hall began conducting research for the manuscript that would become his magnum opus, The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Scouring museums and libraries, he sought to uncover as many of the theories and symbols of the Western esoteric tradition as he could, compiling them into a single volume. The book would take six years to complete, but this initial year spent on the high seas provided the inspiration for the difficult task that followed. Hall’s trip formed the foundation for his masterpiece and was essential to its creation.

Hall later referred to his 1923 trip as “the single most important episode in my life.”1 According to a biographical PRS brochure entitled “Manly P. Hall: Portrait of An American Sage,” these travels “strengthened his convictions about the importance of comparative religions and deepened his understanding of significant contributions made in the interest of human spiritual evolution.” A letter of introduction from noted explorer Sir Francis Young­husband granted Hall access to the reading room of the British Museum, where he found numerous manuscripts. Other ­cities yielded similarly important results. Apparently, Hall caused a stir wherever he landed, fascinating the ­locals with his bizarre ideas and strange appearance. A photograph in ­Master of Mysteries shows Hall standing behind a sadhu in India, the huge American looming large in a three-piece suit with his poet’s locks fanning out from under a pith helmet. It’s no ­wonder Hall’s picture often made the newspapers in these foreign countries—he looks utterly alien, his broad body claiming the center of the composition even when he stands in the background. The desire to capture the unfamiliar was shared; according to Sahagun, Hall took four hundred photographs while on his trip.

That same year—1923—­an­other young man set out from America on a voyage around the world and, like Hall, made stops in Hawaii, Japan, China, Egypt, and Israel. Without the help of benefactors or church congregants, this ambitious youngster worked his way around the world, taking odd jobs in exchange for passage—or, when that failed, stowing away on departing ships. His trip took two years to complete, and to finance it he worked stints as a dishwasher in San Francisco, a proofreader for the Hono­lulu Star-Bulletin in Hawaii, a cigarette salesman in Shanghai, and, finally, a car mechanic in Jerusalem. Mostly, though, he was a deckhand aboard steamships; in his own words, he worked “as hard as a one-eyed dog in a sausage factory” to make this dream voyage come true. Instead of first-class luxury liners and the British Museum, this man spent his nights in the hull and borrowed books from the Seamen’s Institute. He was just two years older than Manly P. Hall, and as anonymous as Hall was illustrious. Even in appearance, the two were opposites: the man was as tall as Hall, but slight in all the places the sage was stout, and though Hall bore the angular, almost gaunt facial structure of a much thinner man, the other man appeared, at least from the neck up, boyishly plump. If the two could have traded heads, their physical bodies would have made a lot more sense. Yet these two men were wandering roughly the same course and wound up sharing a similar journey. I’m not just speaking geographically: both men were on metaphysical quests and would spend their lives (and perhaps even their afterlives) obsessively collecting wisdom from far-off sources. Like Hall, the other fellow was armed with a camera and brought back many photographs of the sites he saw and the people he met. Also like Hall, he wrote a book inspired by the trip. It was less than encyclopedic in its scope: a first-person travelogue that was never published titled “Around the World Without a Cent.”

The Mystic in Marlboro Country

The small midwestern town my mother’s family comes from is so iconically American that Philip Morris once shot a Marlboro Man ad there. The bar where the pictures were taken is no longer open, and hasn’t been in my lifetime. Through dusty windows, you can see the cash register at the end of a long ­walnut counter and the row of stools where the Marlboro Man sat.

The next town over is even smaller than ours; a sign off the interstate exit gives the population as 309. The two big businesses in this town are a grain elevator and an ethanol plant that bakes a sour, yeasty smell into your clothing as soon as you exit your car. Just north of the elevator is Main Street, a narrow strip of stores that includes a post office, a bank, a hardware store, a restaurant, and, occasionally, a karate studio. My aunt and uncle own the hardware store and keep it going out of habit and conviction.

A few blocks away from Main Street is an old Folk Victorian cottage that belonged to Vernie Johnson, who was a distant relative of mine—the uncle of my aunt’s husband. So even though he was not my uncle, I’ve always called this well-tended abode “Uncle Vernie’s house,” and even though Vernie passed away nearly twenty years ago, the house still retains not only his name but also a good deal of his stuff. In my family, when someone dies, we don’t sift through his or her belongings or divide things up. We shut the door of the house and make sure the place gets painted ­every few years. Just like the Marlboro bar, things pretty much remain the same because we are a people resistant to change. Only a fool attempts to breed the stubborn out of a mule, and we like our houses-cum-storage-sheds.

I never knew Vernie Johnson, except as a shadowy figure who occasionally came up in the adult conversations around me. I’ve gleaned two genuine facts from eavesdropping: first, there were a lot of books in Vernie’s gingerbread house. “What kind of books?” I once asked my father. “Odd books,” he answered. “Weird books, and lots of them.” After that, my father got cagey and it was no good to push further.

The other thing I know about Vernie Johnson is that on one occasion he came over to my aunt’s house for supper and my father, attempting to chat him up, asked what he’d been doing. Vernie replied, “Working on my philosophical research.” The response ­tickled my ­father, who, upon Vernie’s departure, started implementing the phrase as a joke. In my father’s hands, “philosophical research” became shorthand for a range of ill-defined and mostly nefarious activities. A handy phrase, it soon became widely used in our family as a cloak to cover blocks of unaccounted-for time. For teenagers, its imprecision was ideal: never had two girls been so enmeshed in “philosophical research” as my sister and I were. We used the phrase to mean anything from vegging out in front of the TV to slipping out to meet a boyfriend. Little did we know then that our joke was actually an incantation.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1998, I fancied myself, like other pioneers pulled west, to be forging new ground. Then, one day as I was heading for the 5 Freeway, I noticed a sign off Los Feliz Boulevard. In plastic movable type it read, “Philosophical Research Society.” The words came together with a jolt of realization: when Vernie Johnson said he was doing “philosophical research,” he wasn’t being evasive, he was answering honestly. Our family mantra for messing around was no joke, but rather a real entity.

I stopped to explore the boxy complex of low-lying stucco buildings behind the sign. In the parking lot, a massive granite sculpture of what appeared to be an Egyptian god greeted me; his six-pack abs might have been intimidating had he not been knee-bent in supplication. Behind a brick frieze that sheltered the facility from the road, I was surprised to find a courtyard surrounded by several buildings that took up much more real estate than expected. Set off from a municipal-­looking mid-century auditorium was an older, more charming two-story building with a grand arched entryway that housed the center’s library. The doors beneath the arch were made of a heavy, dark wood that bore impressively carved characters, although the identities of the figures eluded me. Later, I learned that they were Confucius and Plato and that they had been hand-carved by silent-film actor Stuart Holmes, whose wife, Bianca, served as an early astrologer to movie stars.

Whatever this place was, I had a hunch Uncle Vernie had been involved with it. Indeed, when I told my aunt about the place, she informed me that Vernie and his brother had lived in Los Angeles during the 1940s, and though his brother soon moved back to the family farm, Vernie remained in California for decades. That he wasn’t always holed up in that Victorian house in the Midwest intrigued me. Driving down the street, I’d thought I was barreling toward the undiscovered future, but as it turns out I was actually following a circuitous path, one that my ancestors had traveled long before me. The PRS sign was Vernie’s big reveal—and, as is fitting for a man who owned at least forty books on the nonexistence of death, Vernie came back.

Lost Lands, Lost Libraries

If the specter of Vernie nudged me toward the Philosophical Research Society that day, it was his books that, like breadcrumbs, confirmed the path back to Manly P. Hall. Not long after I discovered the PRS in Los An­geles, my aunt and I spent a hot ­summer day upstairs in Vernie’s house, sorting his books and cataloging them in an Excel spreadsheet. This was no small task: at least 3,000 volumes  are housed there. None were nearly as wicked as I’d imagined. We found the books stacked in piles on the sun-faded carpet upstairs and went through them one by one, opening the hard covers and flipping through each to see if Vernie had left any traces behind. In our haste, delicate pages crinkled like the surface of a frozen lake at the start of a thaw.

Few additional artifacts were found, but, really, who needed them? The books were puzzling enough. Occasionally, titles were self-­explanatory—Do We Live ­After Death? Positively Yes!, The Case Against Psychoanalysis, The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries vols. 1 & 2—or familiar classics (Blake, Emerson, Huxley, Nietzsche), but most merited a long pause for consideration: Creative Chemistry, Fore-Gleams of Eternal Life, The Secret Destiny of America, The Shortcut to Regeneration through Fasting, Telephone Between Worlds. Going through the piles, we stumbled on some that made us laugh, such as How to Live Like a Lord without Really Trying and Life in a Nudist Camp, and the real humdinger, Petting as an Erotic Exercise, which got us giggling like schoolgirls. Coco­a­­nuts and Constipation was doubly funny, since we found two copies of it. Sometimes, a spine demanded we stop cold to see if God-Eating: A Study in Christianity and Cannibalism or Thumbscrew and Rack: Torture Implements Employed in the 15th and 16th Centuries for the Promulgation of Chrstianity might contain images. Others were charmingly prosaic: volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and numerous Boy Scout and seamen’s manuals. Though all the books were written in English, a vast number contained Latin or other unfamiliar terms in the titles. There wasn’t time to look things up, and the heavy summer air had a dulling effect on the mind. Still, we managed to categorize by subject in different spaces on the floor, and then boxed up the books for safekeeping. We dismissed as impractical my father’s suggestion of using Dewey decimal classification, instead filling boxes loosely by theme: ancient Greece, astronomy, astrology, Buddhism, Christian saints, clairvoyance, dietetics, freemasonry, gardening, Hermetic philosophy, Islam, livestock management, mesmerism, nudism, reincarnation, sex, yoga, and, unfortunately, Zionist ­conspiracy—to mention a few.

Snooping around a personal library differs from checking out an institutional one, which has ­probably been purged of embarrassing bits. Unabridged and unedited, the book collection of one who dies without preparation is open game—the deceased has no defense in the judgment of the stacks. This was certainly the case for Uncle Vernie; for years, these books sat unacknowledged in this house, a source of shame for our family because they were so strange. The worst of what we found was, by far, the anti-Semitic tracts, but other than that his library wasn’t as embarrassing as it was baffling. Finally going through it felt like opening a pharaoh’s tomb, and, fittingly, most of what we found inside appeared to be written in hiero­glyphics.

Even more incredible than the strange subject matter was that this collection of books was here. The closest bookstore had always been at least an hour away. How did this library get to this unexpected locale? Had Vernie brought the books here a few at a time, or had they arrived in a single movement, a tsunami of metaphysical speculation flooding the heartland? Separate from content, the process of amassing a collection this large in the middle of a town that doesn’t even have a library seemed an accomplishment worth acknowledging—that the collection was so odd, so truly esoteric, made the deed even more interesting. How did this great pyramid of occult books appear in the Protestant desert of the Midwest?

Occasional Axioms About Women

It’s rumored that Jesse and Frank James, the famous militiamen and bank robbers, once stopped at a farm near here for ­supper. (Apparently, if the James brothers showed up at your door, you fed them.) While waiting for the meal, the brothers amused themselves as only outlaws could, by carving their initials into the shell of a hapless turtle. Even though it was years later, kids of my grandmother’s generation still searched the briar patches hoping to find that turtle. Sorting through Vernie’s books felt like a similar activity, as if we hoped to find in the bindings the remains of what had been an ordinary creature that, through some quirk of time, place, or history, wound up extraordinarily different from the people who surrounded him. In my short visit with my aunt, we did not get to all the books. I returned to Los Angeles, and she continued archiving the collection without me.[2] Not only did she ­create a full list of holdings (sortable by box, title, or author), she also typed up a manuscript she found hidden in a trunk: It was Around the World Without a Cent, Vernie’s account of his youthful voyages on steamships.

Around the World Without a Cent arrived in my inbox with an email from my aunt explaining that “We always thought he [Vernie] had a squirrel loose in his head, but now I wish we’d paid more attention to him.” A more compassionate caretaker of the dead, however, cannot be found. For years, my aunt has tended to Vernie’s legacy by weeding his lawn, taking care of his house, and protecting his books. Now she’s preserved his words, transcribing them dutifully from the handwritten page even though a degenerative retina permits her the use of only one eye. Perhaps this loss allows my aunt special insight, like the blind seers of mythology—only instead of looking to the future like a soothsayer, her gaze is turned backward to the past.

Around the World Without a Cent is a fantastic read, a record of nearly two years traveling at sea conveyed by a lively Douglas Fairbanks–type narrator. Written in ­diary form, it moves at a brisk pace; Vernie is constantly dodging rickshaws, bumping his head on low-hanging lamps, arguing with natives, and chumming around with drunk sailors (though he never takes a sip). If he’s on a ship, you can be sure he’s learning to steer it, and should there be a dull moment on deck, he’s apt to perform a few acrobatic stunts to amuse other passengers. He makes many friends among fellow ­travelers and is always keen to engage locals, learning languages and customs. On days he “doesn’t do much,” he’s sighting volcanic craters in Hawaii or walking through a red-light district in China (he includes a description of the first transsexual he’s ever seen). It’s riveting stuff, but as I read I found myself longing for bad weather, for the rains that kept Vernie in his room writing letters with his door cracked open so he could listen to the Victrola playing in the assembly room. During these introspective moments, he pines for home and a girl back in Kansas City about whom he dashes off song ­lyrics or bits of poetry. Such melancholy is quickly cast off by commotion: “I read books, magazine [sic] later in the evening. A number of sailors have imbibed too freely of ‘Oke’ and are arguing whether the Himalaya Mountains are in England or Australia; they finally have compromised on the state of Rhode Island, U.S.A. Sailors are wise.”

Vernie does steal time for reading, and I looked for signs of his future library and its metaphysical leanings in the manuscript. But for someone who would later devote his life to philosophical research, Vernie does little philosophizing, other than occasional axioms such as “Women are as much alike as figs on a pumpkin vine” and “The lover a woman remembers longest is the man who was never in love with her.” While there are many mentions of God, none register as excessively devout or exotic. In one entry, metaphysics is mentioned and a distinction is made between “the realm of the mind” and “the material world of which I am now living,” which sounds like Christian Science to me (he mentions ­visits to both Christian Science reading rooms and Masonic temples). Another illuminating incident is a ­dinner with a Scottish minister and his flock at a YMCA in Jerusalem, of which Vernie wrote: “It is pitiful how they are torn to pieces and mixed up by doctrine, belief, etc. I told them sin was an illusion, as God was all in all, I was his son, and that Jesus the Christ was my ­Master and example… that nothing existed outside of my spiritual world and atonement with God. But they didn’t seem to grasp it.” The narrator’s conception of God, sin, and the holy trinity are identifiable as Christian Science, which remains on the fringe of Christian belief ­today. As his trip progresses through Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Jerusalem, and finally Greece, Vernie spends more time alone, reading and meditating. (Meditation is not emphasized in Christian Science, so perhaps this new activity reveals another influence.) By the time of his final voyage—his return to the U.S.—he is spending most of his time aboard the ship reading and thinking about metaphysics. As a stowaway on this last ship, he has his most exciting incident of the trip: “Made a great discovery in meta-physics—that I was the center of the Spiritual Universe and that all so-called material laws were non-existent.” Of all the adventures that our narrator has had and of all the wonders he’s encountered, the great discovery of his two-year voyage is that this world, a world he’s endured all sorts of discomfort and pain to see, does not actually exist. And here’s the kicker: he’s happy about it: “I am on my way to the States after being gone almost two years during which time I have seen and done many things. Went through starvation and thirst, hot and cold, hardships and privations, yet, I have been able to go on in spite of it all. Though I am at present a stowaway, I am a powerful man.”

Around the World Without a Cent is a sort of spiritual bildungsroman that tracks more than just the ­hero’s journey around the world; it also follows him as he drops off the map of the external world and into the uncharted territory of inner consciousness. What unfolds during Vernie’s adventures is the maturation of a man into a mystic. Though he’s physically back in Kansas City at the manuscript’s end, his true location is elusive because it’s immaterial. This transformation occurs largely through books—throughout the memoir, the narrator’s dedication to study, and his twin practices of reading and meditation, are obvious. When he arrives in Singapore, for instance, there are no rooms available at the Seamen’s Institute and he is given a cot to sleep on in the institution’s library. Rather than complain about the bedbugs and the noise of a band playing across the street, he happily sits down to read, opining, “Books, books, all around. Knowledge, knowledge to be had night or day now.” Books are what bring him to his greatest revelation, so it makes sense he would return from his trip reborn as a book collector.

The Case of the Eccentric Collectors

Alongside the manuscript of Around the World Without a Cent my aunt found a folio edition of Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages (Vernie’s library contains a total of thirty-­two books by Hall). If only we’d uncovered some personal correspondences between the two men the link would be clear, but as of yet no such letters have been found. (And I feel certain they would have been found by now—my aunt works like a bloodhound.) There’s no evidence that my uncle and Hall knew each other, although, based on the books in Vernie’s library, it certainly seems that he was a frequent visitor to the Philosophical Research Society when he lived in Los Angeles. At the PRS he would have undoubtedly run into Hall, who lectured there on a weekly basis for half a century. I asked Louis Sahagun, Hall’s biographer, about the probability of their having met, and he told me, “there were some people in L.A. who probably never heard of Manly P. Hall—who never crossed his path at all. But anyone interested in esoteric ideas and trying to apply them to their lives who lived in Los Angeles during its formative years would have been very aware of Manly Hall. Those people included Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Masons, and similar schools… For that group, which was fairly substantial at that time in L.A., Hall was regarded as the wisest man in the land, the high priest of California. When it came to questions esoteric or metaphysic in nature, the ultimate authority was Manly Palmer Hall.”

In Master of the Mysteries, Sahagun is adroit at maintaining a difficult balance. He is not afraid to humanize a man many regard as a sage, nor is he wholly dismissive of Hall’s teachings, as most journalists and scholars are. Sahagun’s take is much more even; he appreciates Hall’s efforts to popularize ancient philosophy but admonishes him for his lapses into hypocrisy and for his later advocacy of dangerous Paracelsian techniques, as elaborated in the works of Edmond ­Szekely, who prescribed daily enemas and the use of urine and ants for healing. As Sahagun explains, “Hall believed in some kind of mystical benefit of enemas… and at the end of his life he became addicted to them… It sounds pretty stupid, and it was… and it was this foolish side of those self-taught, self-adopted metaphysic ideas that cost Hall his life.” As Sahagun sees it, Hall’s great strength was as a teacher who could synthesize ancient philosophy and show others how to put these ideas into practical use to cope with the problems of daily life—whereas his biggest problem was that he positioned himself as a scholar and got swept up in questionable sources:

With his book [Secret Teachings] Hall introduced many working-class people in California, across the nation, and even around the world, to a layman’s understanding of Plotinus, Plato, Confucius, and Rosicrucian ideas. Part of the problem, however, was that people regarded him as superhuman… Even when he was a young man, rumors were rampant that he had magical ­powers, that he was channeling the world’s great thinkers in his lectures. Hall didn’t correct these rumors, just as he didn’t correct people when they called him ‘Doctor.’ He didn’t clarify that his work was reiterating and ­almost rewriting, in synoptic form, ideas that he gleaned from his own ­library.

According to Sahagun, Hall’s personal library at the time he wrote The Secret Teachings of All Ages consisted of around six hundred volumes. In the course of his life, Hall would grow the PRS’s library to more than three hundred thousand books. Hall did most of his collecting in the 1930s and ’40s, gathering Aztec codices, Egyptian papyri, a King James version of the Bible, illuminated copies of the ­Koran, a parchment scroll of the kabbalah, centuries-old Chinese manuscripts, a Japanese sutra written in blood, Navajo sand paintings made by a medicine priest, and many important alchemical texts from the seventeenth century, including the complete works of Paracelsus. He sought these treasures in antiquarian bookstores around the world, including Orientalia, Inc., in New York City and Dawson’s Book Shop in Los Angeles, which had a substantial occult section in the 1910s through the ’30s. Sure enough, when I called Michael Dawson, the third-generation owner of the shop, he remembered seeing Hall coming in (“a crotchety, older guy”) and quickly pulled a record that listed him as “Hall, Manly, teacher of ancient philosophy.”

“He bought steadily from us, mostly books about Asian art,” Dawson told me. Along with books, Hall also collected art and coins, and much of his collection remains open to the public at the PRS today. One exception is that many of the more valuable alchemical manuscripts were sold to the Getty Research Institute in order to cover legal expenses incurred after Hall’s death. Although, as Sahagun points out, Hall wasn’t an accredited scholar subject to peer review, he was incredibly knowledgeable in a vast number of fields and managed to amass a significant and impressive collection of rare and esoteric materials. That the Getty acquired part of Hall’s collection proves that, amateur or not, the man had expertise. Of Hall’s collection, a research librarian at the Getty said, “As a rare book and manuscript collector, Manly Hall had a very good understanding of the significance of what he was selecting for his library.”

For some of his followers, it was not enough for Hall to be a talented teacher and popular writer who created an incredible library; instead, he was endowed with all sorts of magical properties. “It was hard to separate the fact from fiction with Manly P. Hall,” Sahagun told me. “People spent a lot of time trying to explain how they knew for a fact that Hall was a hermaphrodite, that he was as advanced as some of the bisexual gods that he wrote about. Or that Hall was one of the twelve Illuminati of the world, or that he read their minds or sent them messages telepathically. That’s all interesting, but I wanted to know when he failed to pay a speeding ticket or spilled ketchup on his tie. I wanted to know why it was he would go to a restaurant with friends, order two custard pies, and eat both while his friends were still waiting for a piece. I wanted to understand the reality of Hall as I understand reality.”

The fantastic stories about Hall included one about his library: it was rumored that Hall had ordered his books in such a way that if you started at the beginning of the library and worked your way through the room you would receive a gradual unfolding of all the world’s wisdom teachings. This magical arrangement permitted the revelation of a coherent, unbroken story of human existence and was specifically conjured by Hall, who, like the great architect of the universe, knew how to unfold enlightenment. “That’s totally untrue,” Sahagun says. “He had many librarians over the years and every librarian rearranged the books.”

In writing Hall’s biography, Saha­gun kept his boots planted on the terra firma of objective reality, an apt stance for a journalist and Pulitzer Prize–­winning reporter. But he holds his ground without being rigid; even when facts are preposterous they still subsist. He doesn’t force logic on his subject or throw out the implausible just because it’s far-fetched: a teacher of mysticism so overly infatuated with Paracelsus that he is eventually done in by his own excessive enema treatments? Ridiculous, but true—and nearly as incredible as finding a three-thousand-­volume occult library in the middle of a cornfield in the Midwest. But in both instances, that which is outside reason is still reality.

Until Sahagun’s book, there was little written about Manly P. Hall’s personal life. Though he lived as a public figure for some seventy years, Hall’s life story remained a closed book. Around the World Without a Cent is the only autobiographical writing Vernie left behind, and Hall produced only one bit of personal writing in his prolific literary career, an essay about the grandmother who raised him. These are both men you get to know only through what they left behind—their libraries.

So I go back to Vernie’s books looking for clues, but this time I enlist an expert: Maja D’Aoust, the librarian of the PRS and a frequent lecturer there, as well as the author of the book The Secret Source, which should be subtitled “A History of Hermetic Thought for Those Utterly Confused by It.” It’s the most helpful book I’ve encountered for retracing the roots of so-called occult ideas back to their ancient sources. D’Aoust was game to participate in my Nancy Drew–like obsession to decode, via Uncle Vernie’s books, what he might have been searching for himself.

She spent an afternoon with me, combing through the spreadsheet detailing Vernie’s library. She pointed out particular titles and explained their significance in her unique blend of SoCal surfer slang—gnarly an oft-­deployed adjective—and medieval alchemist speak. Coming across a number of Szekely titles, she described his advocacy of enemas as “harsh and gnarly cleanses,” tossing off that he was thought to be full of “baloney” in the scholarly world. (She didn’t mention Hall’s infatuation with his work, though.) As I’d hoped, her pronouncements elucidated ­Vernie’s collection: “With a ­library like this, he was obviously following some trails… he’s got great books, serious, amazing esoteric books… he’s got good titles—traditional occultist titles. I wonder if he saw most of these books in the library here and then went out and bought them.” I explained that that was a distinct possibility, but she’d already started making other proclamations: “He was into the esoteric side of Christianity, Christ consciousness and the like, some obscure Knights Templar stuff, Esoteric Structure of the Alphabet—that’s a great book. And he’s got more sex books than I do! It’s one thing to be curious about sex, but he’s really into the nitty-gritty. A whole book about sperm?!”

As D’Aoust continued her analy­sis, some interesting things came to light. First, she pointed out strange incongruities between the books and the limited biographical information I’d provided: “For a lifelong bachelor, it’s odd he’s got a host of books on marriage and fertility and was so clearly into things that didn’t affect him. What’s a bachelor doing reading about the horrors of vaccinating your child?” she asked. She broke the news that Vernie wasn’t just interested in astrology, but was a practicing astrologer, and that his anti-Semitism, as evidenced in the many spooky Zionist conspiracy books, likely stemmed from one, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. “That was probably the seed book for all the other crazy conspiracy stuff,” she explained.

D’Aoust expressed concern when she stumbled upon a number of hypnotism books: “If someone is reading occult stuff and you find yoga books, like here, then I start looking for hypnotism books. It means the person is interested in practical applications of what they’re learning. It’s interesting to see what direction they start to take it in—does he have any ­Crowley books?” She looked at me in a slightly accusatory manner. Aleister Crowley, one-time member of the legendary occult order the Golden Dawn and founder of a system of belief known as Thelema (famous dictum: “Do what they wilt shall be the whole of the Law”), was a mystic and self-­proclaimed ­magus who practiced what he termed “magick,” a series of rituals and initiations that involved a mix of radical sexual practices, literature, and illegal drugs. These practices were meant to cause change in the external world in accordance with the practitioner’s desire. Usually seen as the source of much of what we’d call black magic today, Crowley was a notorious figure in the early twentieth century and dubbed to be “the Wickedest Man in the World” by the press.

I told her I didn’t think so. “That’s good,” she answered. “The hypnotism could be about manipulating other people, but it looks like he’s more about the self-knowledge aspect.” This hypothesis was confirmed a few minutes later, when she concluded that while Vernie’s collection does contain some very obscure titles, he doesn’t have any “heavy occult magic ones.”

“If he were a practicing occultist, we’d see more gnarly ones, more alchemy texts. He doesn’t even have Paracelsus,” D’Aoust said, although the repercussions of this oversight were unclear to me. Paracelsus, apparently, also invoked forces best left alone. She continued: “His collection is more interested in the origins of religion and mankind. He was a source guy, wanting to figure out the religious implications of the beginning of the world and of the end—that’s where the reincarnation stuff fits in. Early on, the Egypt stuff tipped me off—if you go to Egypt, it’s a search for the source.”

What I gathered from this pronouncement was good: I didn’t have to tell my Protestant family that Vernie was practicing black magic and that their fears about his strange books proved true. D’Aoust awarded a few of Vernie’s volumes “ten esoteric occult points,” but that’s not enough to push him into flat-out wizardry. Casting horoscopes and doing yoga are activities that even the women at my mother’s gym do. Far more troubling are the anti-­Semitic books, but honestly, what family doesn’t have some sort of bigot in it? All in all, the portrait of Vernie that emerges from D’Aoust’s “reading” of his books presents an insatiably curious, intellectually ambitious guy whose quest for knowledge led him, almost pathologically, to seek and find books that promised to illuminate the big mysteries of the universe. And when he got into a subject, he went deep. His interest in nutrition led him to study biochemistry, and an inquisitiveness about sex extended all the way to a scientific analysis of sperm. No book, it seemed, was out of bounds, and since his great passion in life was “philosophical research,” the creation of this library was his life’s great work.

In Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” which is perhaps the most beautiful essay ever written on the subject of collecting books, the writer likens the acquisition of a book to a rebirth, a renewal of existence not only for the old book, but also for the collector. As collectors cycle through hardbacks, they are immersed in a process of ­continual reincarnation—each new volume creates an emergent being. This is a fitting metaphor for two collectors whose libraries both contained substantial holdings on the subject of reincarnation. For Hall and for Vernie, the keys that unlocked the mysteries of existence sat on the shelves of their libraries, and each edition ­offered, within its pages, a new initiation. These men were spiritual seekers and their libraries endure as the religious artifacts of their quests. In his chapter on Pythagoras in The Secret Teachings, Hall explains that Pythagoras was the first learned man to call himself a philosopher: “Before that time the wise men had called themselves sages, which was interpreted to mean those who know. Pythagoras was more modest. He coined the word philosopher, which he defined as one who is attempting to find out.”

The two libraries, constructed by amateur scholars, are relics of one who is attempting to find out, albeit on very different scales. Vernie was not alone in creating such an edifice. D’Aoust explained that the PRS receives many donations from families who’ve inherited collections of occult books: “Often, the families just think the person was a big freak and have no interest in finding out anything about the books.” One woman, she said, arrived with six truckloads. “Most of the collections we get are pretty eclectic. So far we haven’t received any huge-time occult magic stuff. The woman who had Houdini’s collection called once, and I would have loved to have had that because he had one of the most amazing occult collections in the world. But she never called back.”

After my meeting with D’Aoust, I start to feel that the special treasure trove of books collected by Vernie is hardly unique—that stretching out across America are storage facilities filled with dusty volumes collected by curious eccentrics. So many esoteric books, and yet their secrets seem, like Houdini’s estate manager, to magically evade material or intellectual apprehension.

Drowning in a Sea of Mysticism

Like Vernie, Hall was a man more interested in the my­steries of the universe than in the minutiae of daily living. He favored the big, broad, and abstract over the narrow, specific, and ­material. After all, if you believe that the world is an illusion, you’re less likely to trifle over your life and more likely to focus instead on what happens next. Books offer insight into those unknown territories, which isn’t an unusual application of the written word. After all, we’ve all read books that expanded our worldview or shaped our consciousness, from the small turn of phrase in a poem that sparks a revelation, to a particular novel that rouses some latent feeling. In fact, most good books—the ones we carry around with us for life in cardboard boxes, packing and unpacking—operate on levels of recognition that defy logic, be they novels or nonfiction. Reading is always an initiatory experience. But in my conversation with D’Aoust, she suggested that some books are more potent than others in affecting readers and materializing thoughts into reality. These are the “gnarly, occult books,” of which Vernie had few. “Some occult books are infamous for their power and ruin people’s lives,” she told me. At the PRS, books dealing with black magic and secret esoteric studies are kept in a vault that researchers must be awarded access to. “Manly was very much aware that some books should not be made available to all people. There’s a discipline and history behind occult study. All this New Age stuff, where you can access anything and there’s not context built around it—people unknowingly get into dangerous territory,” D’Aoust warned.

So how would a novice in occult studies, like me, know if she’d come across such a book in her ­uncle’s library? Often, D’Aoust explained, such books are “bound,” that is, alchemically sealed so that no one but initiates can understand the contents. This seal, a magical force, is applied to allow only those with the proper training and knowledge to grasp the book’s meaning, as well as to prevent the teachings from being haphazardly exploited by those with evil intentions.

I find out about this magical practice the hard way: by inadvertently ordering such a book off the Internet. Inspired by the unearthing of Vernie’s library, I decided to do a little philosophical research of my own and found a title that looked particularly juicy in an eBay auction. In my ignorance, I didn’t know what exactly I was bidding on—the ­description contained the words “esoteric” and “occult,” and there were no other bidders. When the book arrived, I realized it was an instruction guide for some interior order of an occult group, the first chapter of which was a long warning about its use. (A notice in the front of the book requests that its contents be kept private from all but members of a special group. I will honor that request here, and reveal neither the book’s title nor its affiliation.) Clearly, that introduction wasn’t bound since I got the message loud and clear. Still, being curious, I read on for another chapter. Though the words on the page were recognizable, they were being used and ordered in unfamiliar ways. The best way I can explain the experience is to compare it to reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—the quintessential ex­ample of a book that contains ­layers of meaning that readers access at different points in their lives. Uneducated, I was a child mucking about in a river of occult knowledge (actually, it would prove to be an even bigger body of water), unaware of where its currents led or which ones might be dangerous.

So I did what any kid would do and stopped reading to look at the pictures instead, perusing the book’s many colored plates. The meaning of these intricate diagrams and symbols eluded me, but still, they were pretty—fascinating, arcane-­looking things. Was this book alchemically bound? I don’t even have enough occult knowledge to know if it was a magical force protecting the book from my comprehension or just my own naive ignorance (or, more generously, my lack of training). Still, whether or not the book was enchanted, I remained enchanted by it.

I confessed in my conversation with D’Aoust to owning such a book. D’Aoust, who teaches a course on alchemy at the PRS, advised me to give it back to whatever group it came from. “You’re not going to understand it if you read it,” she told me, “and it’s just like a kid who watches a movie he or she isn’t ready for—the ideas get embedded into your subconscious whether you understand them or not.”

Instead I decide to delve into a subject well represented in ­Vernie’s library that seems suitably dusty and safe: Theosophy. A religious philosophy popular in the nineteenth century, Theosophy posits­ that all ­religions spring from a single source of ancient wisdom and that this knowledge of the divine is available if we explore ­levels of knowing beyond empiricism. For Theosophists, humans have latent powers that can, through certain practices, be fostered; in the process, what is revealed are natural laws that prove current ­paradigms of thought (the battle between science and religious faith, for instance) to be antiquated. Culling from other speculative religious ­traditions such as kabbalah and the work of seventeenth-­century mystics such as Jacob Boehme, a group of sympathetic thinkers solidified into an organization called the Theosophical Society in 1875. Founded in New York, the society quickly spread. Its work was dedicated to propagating three basic ideas: that all of humanity was a “universal brotherhood” that should not be separated based on race, creed, sex, or caste; the study of comparative religion and philosophy; and the scientific investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in man. Many artists and other influential figures were inspired by Theosophical ideas, including Paul Gauguin, Franz Kafka, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, William Butler Yeats, and the Oz series author, L. Frank Baum, who wrote of Theosophy, “[It] is not a religion. Its followers are simply ‘searchers after Truth.’ Not for the ignorant are the tenets they hold, neither for the worldly in any sense.”

Within Vernie’s holdings are many books by Theosophical ­leaders, but I go straight to a primary source: Helena Petrovna Bla­vatsky’s twelve-hundred-page tome, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Blavatsky, the visionary cofounder and spiritual head of the Theosophical Society, was a ­rotund, chain-smoking Russian ­émigré with a taste for colorful language (she probably swore better than any of Vernie’s shipmates). A major occultist, she was said to be in contact with a group of ancient adepts called the Masters, which ­included most of the world’s major religious leaders along with some new ones. The Masters’ role was to help hapless ­humans work through the many necessary phases of spiritual evolution, and they communicated with Blavatsky, their chosen vessel, in a variety of ways: through hand­written letters covered in mystical symbols, visions, sudden apparitions, and trances. Blavatsky wrote her two massive books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, through amanuensis—when she got stuck or needed a particular passage from a source not at hand, she simply moved to the astral plane where the Masters would project the words into her head. Some spectators to Blavatsky’s process took this idea more literally, testifying that they saw an Indian hand reach up from beneath her writing to write whatever quotations she needed.

The Secret Doctrine is not a “bound” book, and Blavatsky acknowledges in the book’s introduction that it will “raise but a small corner of the dark veil” of the mystery that is human existence because “no one, not even the greatest living adept, would be permitted to, or could—even if he would—give out promiscuously, to a mocking, unbelieving world, that which has been so effectually concealed from it for long aeons and ages.” She goes on to describe, in wonderful, wandering detail, the process by which “the mysteries of the Secret Science” were lost, moving back to the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. According to her, the combined efforts of mysterious brotherhoods saved three copies of each destroyed title, encrypting them into cryptographic characters. These veiled copies were then hidden away in subterranean crypts and the cave libraries owned by wealthy lamaseries in the East. This “immense, incalculable number of manuscripts” that are “known to have existed, are to be found no more.” But these lost books are not entirely obliterated from the human record thanks to occasional keys that surface, secondary volumes of commentaries and explanations that refer back to the primary texts. Of course, these secondary texts, the keys that unlock the lost ones, are “entirely incomprehensible” to most readers. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine is such a book, and she assures readers that it contains all the knowledge that can be uncovered from its “lost source” that is fit to be revealed to the world at the time she’s writing it—not the full “Secret Doctrine,” but as much of it as can safely be told.

Split into two brick-sized volumes, The Secret Doctrine concerns the complicated cosmology of the universe and the even more convoluted outline of the spiritual evolution of mankind. Blavatsky had planned to add a third and fourth volume to the work, but never did. The “lost” book Blavatsky culls from is said to be an ancient Tibetan text called the Stanzas of Dzyan—a manuscript that has never been proven to exist, but then again, as a book of esoteric instruction, it’s supposed to be hidden. Presumably, a copy of the original copy of the Stanzas of Dzyan remains secreted away in a cave library somewhere. The Secret Doctrine, then, is a key to a missing manuscript.

Reading The Secret Doctrine quickly becomes an exhausting exercise. The preface and introduction move along just fine, but before reaching “Part One” I am stuck in a section called “Proem”—as fine an example as any of Blavatsky’s baroque style: she follows up an introduction with a second introduction. By the middle of the proem’s very first paragraph, I’m utterly confused. She describes a simple image in the most complicated manner, and I wonder why, in a book that contains many illustrations (a few simple ones pop up in a mere three pages), she chooses not to use one here where it would have been much more comprehensible than her twisty prose. Plus, her use of capitalization is slapdash: “Kosmos,” “Eternity,” “Energy,” “Disk,” “Space,” “Point,” “Pralaya,” “Divine Thought,” “Cosmogony,” “Theogony”—even “Mundane Egg” merits caps, which certainly strikes me as overuse. Ditto on the asterisks, which she uses to mark areas that merit lengthy footnotes where she summarizes philosophical treatises and debates from Plato, Berkeley, and von Hartmann. Only nine pages in, I’m ready to ­abandon ship—there is no pleasure of the text here, and in fact, each time I try again to pick up The Secret ­Doctrine, my eyes start to blur after a few pages and the result is a splitting headache.

Since this book is not besieged by some bit of enchantment that padlocks its meaning from me, this difficulty troubles me. Maybe I’m just a thick, lazy reader, destined for a D-minus in my occult studies. This may be like taking the blame for a bad date when the two of you had nothing in common. Sure, you could understand each other’s­ words in the conversation, but you couldn’t find anything interesting to hold onto beyond their familiar shape. Certainly there wasn’t the comfort level to take the leap to shared meaning or understanding. I feel a lot better about my failure when I read this from religious scholar Robert S. Ellwood’s book Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America:

The Secret Doctrine is a book not easily forgotten, even by those who despise it or who, like many outside the Theosophical orbit, find it almost impossible to read. As the modern classic of occultism, it represents a certain pinnacle, either of profundity or absurdity. To understand what it has to offer, one must learn how to read it. The Secret Doctrine is not a textbook, but is like an ocean with waves and currents and eddies and whirlpools and quiet caves. It calls for suspending one’s normal mode of conceptual progress until one has discovered where the tides and techniques of this new medium will carry him. Water is, to man, a distorting element, and probably whatever he sees in it will not be seen as it really is. The ecstatic surges in his body as he rides the swells will not be forgotten after he has found his feet once again on the sand. Like riding the waves, or like listening to great music, this book wafts one to where he can perceive reality in new configurations that unite the subjective and the objective. It does not so much convey specific fact as arrange science, myth, philosophy, and poetic narrative in peculiar combinations which can generate remarkable experiences—or so it has been with Theosophists.

Ellwood’s interpretation suggests that instead of drowning in this occult ocean, I should simply bob along, floating whichever way the currents carry my mind. D’Aoust has a suggestion too: “Don’t read it from cover to cover. It’s not meant to be read in sequential order. Jung, Hall, Blavatsky, I always use the index first with a keyword. I’ve read all their works in their totality, but from just working on one specific bit at a time. It’s like the information was to come at a particular time and not a moment sooner.” This advice takes some of the pressure off: I can dive in and get out whenever I want.

It is rumored that Albert Einstein kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine on his desk, so that when he was confounded by a problem in his work, “the strangeness of this book may relax or possibly inspire him.”[3] How did this tidbit come to light? Theosophists report that during the 1960s, Einstein’s niece visited the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, India, and presented the librarian there with a well-worn book, its margins filled with scribble. This special, dog-eared copy of The Secret Doctrine is said to be in the holdings at the society’s library there, although I had no luck getting in touch to confirm its existence. As for this niece, she too is a bit of a mystery: Einstein’s only sibling, his sister, died childless, so the gift-giver must have been further afield on the family tree. Perhaps she too was a great-niece, a curious outlier obsessed with the family’s most eccentric character. Whatever the case, in the stories about Einstein’s book the niece knows little about Theosophy; she seeks out the society only because of her uncle’s book. She would have been right beside me in the briar bush, trying to track down turtles.

Occult Transmissions

It turns out that today almost every public library in America has a solid collection of books that concern occult philosophy. Often these books are stored somewhere other than the main stacks (and odds are, once the book is located, you’ll find it hasn’t been checked out in a while).

Similarly, Robert Ellwood’s scholarship on alternative religious groups in America finds that while Los Angeles may have been the ­center of occult book publishing in the early decades of the twentieth century, many fringe spiritual groups and occult societies found fertile soil to grow in midwestern areas. Strong Theosophical communities, for example, were established in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Sheridan, Wyoming; and Pierre, South Dakota. Ellwood uses as an example the White Lotus Lodge in Pierre, which held a meeting to discuss the concept of karma in 1900. There’s a dissident side to the history of religion in America that has always made room for esoteric readings and occult knowledge, from Theosophical books to folk remedies.

The knowledge gained from oc­cult literature is secret not in the sense of being hidden from the public but rather because it’s acquired through ­“hidden” cognitive processes that we don’t often use. We’ve learned to read in a particular fashion, and most of the time that methodology doesn’t much resemble swimming in the ocean. Readers are used to following words like literalists, each one exact and accurate in its meaning and presented in a familiar, discernable pattern. But mysteries are by nature more poetry than prose. Books like Blavatsky’s are meant to be keys, and occult knowledge follows an appropriately oblique route. It is passed down through indirect communication, symbols and emblems that point toward a kind of knowledge that can only be gained somewhere outside the limits of Aristotelian philosophy—through a system of practices and methods that are latent till we learn to rouse them. Like the PRS complex in Los Angeles that I could have ­easily driven by without even noticing, these ideas sit on the side of the road, waiting for a chance discovery or a moment of recognition. But if the ability to identify the mark, to decipher the key or read the ­symbol is lost, so too is the wisdom it contains. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages remains useful (it’s in its eleventh printing) because it too is a key, helping new generations return to the wisdom of the past, which is never fully accessible—­instead, its ocean is black-bottomed, its depths an unfathomable place where the mystical and the magical meet. Even when the symbols can’t be read, or they prove to be nothing but scrawl, their appearance effects a slight change in the perception of what is real, turning the veil back a bit, like a dog-eared page.

Had the phrase “philosophical research” not been repeated as a joke in my family, Vernie’s books might have been left in his attic to mildew and rot. Or perhaps, with the death of my aunt, they would one day be simply, and unceremoniously, discarded. His library is a key, a remainder that reminds us of the presence of disparate ideals across the American landscape. His house is a cave library amid the corn, the contents of which remain, like the man who collected them, something of a mystery to me. Maybe there is no solution to the mys­teries this tiny place poses, but its existence offers possibilities and visions that render heretofore objective reality unreal.

As Walter Benjamin unpacked his library, he wrote, “Inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possession stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus, it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.” I want to be the inheritor of Vernie’s library, which shouldn’t be hard to pull off since no one else in the family really wants it. Occult wisdom should similarly be passed down, like a library—or in this case, as a library—despite the danger of this knowledge coming unbound or the possibilities that its mysteries will remain incomprehensible to new generations of recipients. After all, it is the circulation of mysteries that reminds us of the possibility that there are unseen forces and hidden histories—perhaps waiting, like old elusive turtles, to be found.

1. See Sahagun’s Master of the Mysteries.
2.  My aunt reminds me that she had an important helper in the task of sorting, organizing, cataloging, and packing Vernie’s books after I left: her friend Abbey Miles. Abbey, fifteen years old at the time, spent several more hot days at Vernie’s house typing titles into Excel and carting around boxes of books. She worked hard and should be thanked for her efforts here.
3.  From John Algeo’s Theosophy and the Zeitgeist. Algeo cites Jack Brown’s article “I Visit Professor Einstein,” from the Ojai Valley News, September 28, 1983, as the source of the Einstein story.


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