The Miracle Club: How Thoughts Become Reality
Mitch Horowitz | 192 pages | Inner Traditions | Oct. 2018 | ISBN: 978-1-62055-766-2 | $16.99
Not long ago, I reviewed Gary Lachman’s book Dark Star Rising in which the former Blondie bassist explored Donald Trump’s belief in New Thought, a distinctly American philosophy of wishful thinking in which “right” thought influences the physical world in a magical way. Now TarcherPerigree’s editor-in-chief and occult writer Mitch Horowitz—who published Lachman’s book—has a parallel volume, The Miracle Club, casting the same set of beliefs in a much more positive light, treating New Thought as a complete spiritual path to attaining your heart’s desire. “I argue in this book that, for all its shortcomings, and for all its being disparaged by critics as a dogma of wishful delusion, New Thought, in its essentials, is true—and can be tested in your experience,” he writes. “This is a book of practical use.” It is also a book of practical self-delusion that risks substituting hope for hard work and expectation for experience.
Here I must confess that to review this book accurately is to burn bridges. Horowitz works in publishing, and I have had conversations with him via social media on occasion. It is challenging to review a book written by anyone of my acquaintance, however slight, to begin with, but to say that its fundamental premise is not just flawed but a little bit dangerous risks upsetting the powerful people who decide which books get published and which don’t, at a time when I have a manuscript on offer. Nevertheless, it would be unethical of me to withhold my judgment in the hope of currying favor. Reader, I just didn’t buy it.
Horowitz, who grew up reading cryptozoology, UFO, and paranormal books, is a believer in the metaphysical and the occult (“Yes, I do believe this stuff,” he writes), and he sees the world as pregnant with magic. He believes that critics of the magical worldview are close-minded and refuse to engage in practical magic to see how wishful thinking and directed fantasy can transform physical reality. “The perspective of the critics requires leavening by experience. But experience will not touch the staunchest among them simply because they avoid participation in ideas,” he writes. He alleges that psychologists and journalists see participant observation as “corrupt and misleading,” which is a strange thing to say since we have a whole field of science—anthropology—where participant observation and cultural relativism are key practices and a bedrock of the discipline. Horowitz, consequently and perhaps unconsciously, limits his criticism to those he considers insufficiently open to New Age and Countercultural influences, mostly from well before I was born. There is a recurring theme on the fringes of society that the events of the 1880s-1900s and 1961-1979 are somehow the most important in the history of the occult. The Baby Boomers and their admirers have spent longer reliving the 1960s than they did experiencing them. Horowitz is in his mid-50s and came of age in the 1970s, during the darker echo of the New Age, when ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle, and In Search Of… were all the rage.
But if we are to accept his point, I think I would still manage to qualify to review this book. When I was young and occasionally a hopeful investigator of the supernatural, I tried all of those New Age practices—not because I believed them, but because other people did. I became quite adept at imitating the mystical practices of a college classmate who claimed to be able to move objects with his mind due to his spiritual power and faith. It took practice, but I mastered the prestidigitation that makes the trick work. I learned to use meditation to raise and lower my body temperature and to make my skin tingle and hairs stand on end. I’ve even had nights when I experienced altered states of consciousness—natural, not chemical—in which I’ve seen glowing blue vines and psychedelic animals. And it meant nothing to me. I never had an emotional or spiritual experience. If you don’t come to it with a belief that these acts and images have transcendental meaning, they are merely interesting. The meaning is in the observer, not the stimulus. But either way, that makes me a participant, of sorts, and familiar enough to render judgment.
Anyway… I am getting off-topic. Horowitz structures his book around two principles, both false. The first is that a person must be a participant in “ethical and spiritual ideas”—by which he means New Thought’s magical claims—in order to critique them. To see why this is false, imagine different nouns in that claim: One must participate in racism to criticize racists. One must participate in ghost hunts to critique whether ghosts exist. One must starve to death on a breatharian diet to critique people who claim to live only on air and sunshine. Horowitz means it somewhat differently. Imagine, for example, trying to understand an orgasm without having had one. But he is confusing two points—the subjective and the objective, or the emic and the etic. There is value in understanding what people experience when undergoing an occult event, but the experience is not in and of itself a measure of objective reality. One might experience tremendous power in a hallucination, but it does not translate into a physical reality in the real world outside the experiencer’s head. Horowitz answers that there is no distinction since “Our psychology is a mosaic of images, scenes, emotions, and words.” This seems less an answer than an obfuscation.
The second error is related to the first. Horowitz believes that by being a participant in magical occult thinking, one can experiment on oneself and demonstrate the power of positive thinking to effect change. But this is exquisitely untrue. Horowitz does not recommend a strict protocol whereby one might develop clear criteria to measure the impact of positive thinking and evaluate its results. Instead, he advocates unintentionally for confirmation bias. Basically, if we follow his steps as they are given, his method amounts to thinking positively and then trying to retrofit whatever happens next into a framework making it the result of the positive thought. Therefore, negative events are ignored or minimized and coincidental positive events are seen as consequences of the happy thoughts. As we shall see, he backtracks on this a bit later in the book.
Horowitz is admirably blunt about the shortcomings of magical thinking, particularly as practiced by modern gurus and hucksters, and he certainly understands that what passes for New Thought is basically a holdover from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with very little change. He attributes this not to the unscientific nature of wishful thinking but to a lack of dedicated scholars probing the mysteries of wishful thinking. He can do so because he conflates a number of similar but not directly related issues under the banner of “positive thinking.” It is true that thinking positively can make a person feel better and even stimulate the body’s immune response. It can also create a positive feedback loop that makes a person more confident and more likely to take positive actions and engage in reasonable risks. But these are not magical or occult phenomena. They are merely psychological. He mixes these with outright magical ideas about “right” thinking transforming other people’s behavior and the world around us in mystical ways, and therefore sees thought as remaking the world at a physical or metaphysical level, and not just to the extent that it impacts individuals’ attitudes. He says that he believes this because he has seen the results himself, though he has not investigated the causes of the medical miracles he says he has seen. This is something like polling an audience after a David Copperfield performance and concluding from the poll results that Copperfield manipulates quantum reality to make volunteers disappear because people in the audience thought they saw real magic.
A recurring theme among those who write about fringe topics is that their biographies predispose them to unusual beliefs. Horowitz credits his faith in positive thinking to his own rise from an impoverished childhood to his current status as a millionaire book editor living the high life among bohemian New York elites. Horowitz built his career on a lucky break—a celebrity interview he parlayed into regular writing features—and an editor who fell in love with a book proposal he shopped around three years later. But he sees this not as a combination of hard work, writing talent, and help from people in powerful positions, but rather as the magical result of wishing really hard for good things. This, he says, occurred in spite of the fact that an “alarming” amount of his day is spent fantasizing about revenge and score-settling, when he knows he should not do so. Is “positive” thought measured net or gross?
He reaches for the irresponsible by telling his readers that they, too, can become wealthy by wishing for it with all their hearts. “You must recognize money as a healthful part of existence,” he writes, because “strong people admit that they want money, among other goals, and in so doing are neither in the service of falsehood nor shame.” Hermes Trismegistus would roll over in his many graves. Horowitz likes to quote the Bible to support his views. “For the love of money is the root of all evil,” an unquoted part of the Bible tells us. Horowitz replies that contempt for money is not a virtue but a hypocrisy, for in his view only a fool would give up champagne and Rolexes or trade earthly ambition for loftier aims. “Whether you are an artist or activist, soldier or craftsman, you must see wealth as a necessary and vital facet of your life. You can do far more good with money than without.” Horowitz issues a caveat later in the book that self-actualization may not lead to financial reward, but he hopes that it will.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the crass mixing of the spiritual and the avaricious, especially when Horowitz concludes his remarks on his own wealth by quoting the Notorious B.I.G. to the effect that he drinks only champagne when thirsty, since he has so much money. Similarly, when he advises readers that true spirituality is pursuing one’s ambitions for success, I got the feeling that this wasn’t really a book about the occult or the spiritual, or even self-help, in any traditional sense. It is, instead, the latest American effort to give spiritual cover to capitalist acquisitiveness. My litmus test for this is simple: If a spiritual “truth” wouldn’t make any sense in Ancient Egypt or among the ancestral Puebloans or your choice of world cultures past or present, it probably isn’t really a universal spiritual truth.
But don’t take my word for it. Horowitz basically says himself that true spirituality is following American individualism down a capitalist path: “My conviction is that the true nature of life is to be generative. I believe that in order to be happy, human beings must exercise their fullest range of abilities—including the exertions of outer achievement.” Now, one might read “achievement” in a broader sense, beyond the economic. But the book doesn’t really allow for such a reading, focused as it is on turning good thoughts into monetary rewards. Again, don’t take my word for it. Here is Horowitz’s actual advice for self-improvement: “You must write down a certain amount of money that you want to make by a certain date in connection with your aim—and be deadly serious about it.” He also advocates offering God a bargain to get what you want. God is the ultimate pawnbroker, in his view. Again, later in the book, Horowitz backs off on this and declares that ambition must be in service of a passion, not mere acquisitiveness. He tends to revert to the spiritual mean from time to time.
Either way, this is deeply at odds with the communitarian spirit of many Eastern and traditional societies, where being “generative” is secondary to serving the greater good of family, community, and society, and where personal achievement is much further down the list than doing one’s duty. Consequently, Horowitz’s spiritual philosophy is really an American one, born of a particular culture and a particular mindset, and largely limited to it. “New Thought at its best and most infectious celebrates the primacy of the individual,” he writes in claiming that the individual and the community are actually one and the same, and individual success becomes community success. Not necessarily. That’s why I felt quite uncomfortable that Horowitz’s “practical” advice on spirituality was focused entirely on the individual and the ego, seeking to fulfill personal goals and aims without considering the larger community and culture. It just felt crass, a happy face pasted over Aleister Crowley’s maxim about doing what one will and that shall be the whole of the law. For better or worse we live in a society and a culture, and elevating the individual’s goals and achievements over the common good and the commonweal strikes me as ungenerous at best and dangerous at worst.
Horowitz fills his book with stories of people who thought positively and were transformed. This, however, is nothing but confirmation bias. What of all the people who thought positively and failed? (Horowitz briefly addresses this, but merely advises individuals to assess their own failures, without controls or comparisons.) Joel Osteen preaches a similar doctrine, which he calls the Gospel of Prosperity—that thinking godly thoughts will bring wealth. Yet Osteen’s church isn’t filled with the wealthy, and though they all believe Osteen’s claim that God will shower happy shiny people with money, it doesn’t happen. New Thought might celebrate its wins, but without counting fairly all those who tried and failed, it is just a bunch of just-so stories designed to make those with nothing feel hope and those with everything feel justified in having it. New Thought places the credit for events squarely on the individual, and it absolves him of any guilt for being in the right place at the right time, or being born into the right family, or taking advantage of random opportunities. No, some miraculous power made it all happen for a reason.
As the book goes on, and the advice for living well under New Thought piles up, it becomes quite clear that the only underlying method to the selection of traits for a good life is the traditional middle-class virtues of midcentury America. Horowitz feints toward the universal with quotes from other cultures, but his prescription for living well is to basically live like a sitcom hero from the 1950s—to be honest and true, to never gossip or slander, to work hard and well for good pay, to dream big but not too big, and to remember that father knows best, to make room for daddy, and to leave it to Beaver. Apparently New Thought is like having Robert Young constantly lecturing in your head.
One question I had is this: What happens when two people wish with all their hearts for irreconcilable ends? Who adjudicates which positive thought is more powerful, or more deserving? Any answer I can come up with borders on the ridiculous, or the depressing. Horowitz tells a story about wanting to be the narrator for a particular audiobook only to be told by the publisher that he wasn’t wanted. After engaging in creative visualization, a new publisher bought the rights and asked him to narrate the book. He alleges that his wishful thinking made this happen. But what if the ex-narrator at the first publisher also wished hard for the job? Why did his wishful thinking fail? Who judged him unworthy? Just imagine the bureaucracy needed to manage the sheer volume of wishes. And worse: How do you like knowing that your actions are altered by other people wishing you to dance like a marionette on a string? Horowitz recognizes that these events could be explained without recourse to the supernatural but he claims, in italics, that they just “felt” paranormal. Waterboarding feels like drowning, but it isn’t.
Near the end of the book Horowitz accidentally confesses the truth: He writes that from the sixth grade down to the present he has desired power, particularly the power to get out from under the thumb of others. “All of my pathologies stemmed from one thing: frustration of this wish,” he writes. From an emic perspective, Horowitz feels that he is embracing his power with positive thinking. From my etic perspective, he seems to be using New Thought to act out teenage fantasies and imagine that he has great power to perform wonders and magic on the world around him. That adolescent anxiety is perhaps why his final statement of the real meaning of life is one that a teenager would make: The purpose of life, he says, is “The enactment of personal means” (emphasis in original). In other words, he wants to be what every teenager wants to be, free from authority and rules and strictures and limits, “free and wild and beyond good and evil,” as Lovecraft once said. It is the fantasy of the American adolescent, and one belied by the fact that we live in a world filled with other people, whose own power fantasies can and will come into conflict with our own. That is why we have a social contract, and with it the very limits that Horowitz hopes to transcend. That way lies anarchy.
Ultimately, Horowitz has become one of those comfortable Western elites who imagines that the freedom afforded by privilege is open to everyone, for “life is about more than settling or being practical—it is about being expressive of something, of standing for something.” Try telling that to the single mother working two jobs to keep a roof over her kid’s head, or the Third World factory worker chained to an assembly line in the vague hope of someday having a family. Self-actualization is a nice goal, I guess, but it is one that only people already positioned for the upper middle class American version of success can afford to pursue. You have to already have your basic needs met before pretending that activism and artistry will be your true passion and goal. “New Thought” is an indulgence for a particular class of Americans, not an amazing occult discovery.
But I am willing to be proved wrong. I have a book about the racist history of the Mound Builder myth in need of a publisher, and Horowitz says that book editors are susceptible to having their actions altered by authors’ magical thinking. So, I will think really hard about it, and we will see if Horowitz will suddenly feel inspired to make my book interesting to whoever is in charge of American history books over at Penguin Random House, the parent of his imprint. Let’s make it happen. After all, the credibility of New Thought is at stake.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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