New Dawn & the Tradition of Alternative Publishing

By RICHARD SMOLEY

(Left) The first issue of New Dawn, No. 30, to hit newsagencies in 1995.

The origins and influences for a publication as rich and manifold as New Dawn are difficult to trace in any simplistic way, particularly for someone who has come to write for it comparatively late in its development, but all the same a few things can be said.

There has always been a market for publications that cater to the human need to explore the unknown and reach beyond the categories of conventional knowledge and experience. The Theosophist, founded by the noted occultist H.P. Blavatsky in 1879 and dedicated to exploring a wide range of esoteric traditions, is an example from the nineteenth century. In London in 1887, Blavatsky, with fellow Theosophist Mabel Collins, founded another journal, Lucifer, which survived for ten years and whose provocative title has ensured Blavatsky’s notoriety among conservative Christians to this day. Another London-based publication – and one of the most distinguished and fascinating specimens from the early twentieth century – was the monthly Occult Review. Published intermittently between 1905 and 1951, it featured contributors like magus Aleister Crowley; Arthur Edward Waite, co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck; and Paul Brunton, author of works such as The Hidden Teaching behind Yoga.

A noted predecessor on the European continent was the French review Planète (“Planet”), published by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier as a follow-up to the sensational success of their 1959 book Morning of the Magicians (first published in English as The Dawn of the Magicians in 1962). The spirit of Pauwels’ and Bergier’s venture could be summed up by this quote from Morning of the Magicians:

Trends of thought that escape the notice of the trained observer; writings and works to which the sociologist pays scant attention, together with social phenomena that he considers too insignificant or too odd to worry about, are perhaps a sure indication of events to come than facts that are there for all to see and the openly expressed opinions and general trend of thinking which cause him serious concern.

And so it has turned out to be, not only for the general public but even for those who are supposed to be in the know. American readers are by now used to reading headlines that say “US Surprised by Developments in [insert nation],” and Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA tells an uninterrupted story of bungling and incompetence in practically every area that much-feared organisation has touched. The good news: if you’re worried about it, it’s probably not that important. The bad news: watch out for things you never even thought of worrying about. One could argue that the role of a genuine alternative press is precisely to register and discuss these things we have never heard of.

In any event, the reach of Planète, which was published between 1961 and 1972, extended into fields such as sociology, futurology, and even literary fiction: Planète was the magazine that first brought the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges to a wide public.

Gnosis & Alternative Media in the US

The alternative press in the United States today owes a great deal to the 1960s counterculture, whose ornate psychedelic newspapers, bizarre and hilarious underground comics, and publications like The Whole Earth Catalog set the tone for alternative publishing for the next generation. For a period extending from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s, publications such as Co-Evolution Quarterly (a spinoff of The Whole Earth Catalog), New Age Journal, Yoga Journal, were investigating the burgeoning spiritual scene in a way that was both sympathetic and critical: many a hypocritical guru got his comeuppance from these magazines. Jay Kinney, an editor for Co-Evolution Quarterly who was also an underground cartoonist, started an influential journal of the Western spiritual traditions in 1985, called Gnosis. Gnosis took its inspiration from a number of influences, some of them (the psychology of C.G. Jung) comparatively well known, others (Gnosticism, the science fiction of Philip K. Dick) then quite obscure.

Gnosis, of which I was editor from 1990 to 1999, with Jay Kinney as publisher and editor-in-chief, was a freewheeling and eclectic quarterly whose contributors included witches, Satanists, Gnostic bishops, and Eastern Orthodox priests. It had the great advantage of being under the auspices of the nonprofit Lumen Foundation, an organisation dedicated to little else than publishing Gnosis. The fact that there was no organisation with its own agenda looking over our shoulders meant that we could publish what we liked. Gnosis dedicated each issue to a specific theme – the ones dedicated to G.I. Gurdjieff and psychedelic spirituality were among our best-sellers. This approach enabled us to go into topics in depth and from a number of different angles, but it had certain commercial disadvantages. Many readers found it more expedient to buy individual issues that interested them (and avoid buying ones that didn’t) rather than subscribing.

Gnosis was able to keep going on an infinitesimal budget until the late 1990s, which saw many casualties among the ranks of small alternative magazines. The 1970s and 1980s had been comparatively good years for these publications in the US. The burgeoning capacity of the Macintosh computer for design and a comparatively low postage rate made it possible for little magazines to grow and even thrive, but toward the end of the century the situation changed dramatically. Independent bookstores – which were major vendors of these magazines – began to fail as two large chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, began to monopolise the bookselling business. As a result, many small, independent magazine distributors – themselves children of the ’60s – began to collapse as well, often owing publishers tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time, the proliferation of the Internet was robbing print media of a great deal of their glamour. It was in this atmosphere that Gnosis closed its doors in 1999. Some larger magazines in the field, notably New Age Journal (today called Body + Soul) and Yoga Journal, taking the hint from their heavily female demographics, survived by recasting themselves into ladies’ lifestyle magazines.

The situation remains to this day. The bookstore chains have retrenched somewhat – Borders filed for bankruptcy this year – but their place has been taken by the Internet giant Amazon, and while independent bookstores are said to be making a comeback, this is a trend that is hardly noticeable to the average reader. For someone of my generation (I was born in 1956), it seems particularly sad that old harbour of refuge for free spirits – the metaphysical bookstore – has more or less vanished. These bookstores were an odd lot, ranging from the superb to the ludicrous. I remember going into one in San Francisco’s North Beach in 1980 and overhearing a conversation that the clerk – a fat lady with eyes made up like a cat’s – was having on the phone. “Well,” she was telling her interlocutor, somewhat impatiently, “we really would have to know what the curse was for…”

Others – Weiser’s in New York, the Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood, even one called The Mystic Eye, on the edge of Harvard Square, which I frequented as an undergraduate – were meccas proffering incense fumes and esoteric knowledge in thick blue volumes to many whose spiritual aspirations did not fit under any known denominational rubric.

Most of these shops are gone now; even New York City, which prides itself on its rich cultural texture as well as on its eccentrics, has only one left. Other parts of the English-speaking world have not been exempt from the trend; London’s largest and most respected esoteric bookshop, Watkins, was closed temporarily in early 2010 until it was bailed out by investors.

In intellectual terms, one major influence on New Dawn has clearly been the British writer and philosopher Colin Wilson (see article on page 51), whose persistent investigations into the mind’s unknown capacities – which Wilson calls Faculty X – have inspired countless readers to explore such figures as Crowley, Gurdjieff, and Gregory Rasputin, not to mention the more conventional themes of existentialism and phenomenology. Indeed Wilson started out focusing on mainstream thought in his first book, The Outsider, published in 1956, when he was only twenty-four, but he was fair-minded enough to remain open to alternative views of reality, and covered these sympathetically and brilliantly in later works including The Occult (1969).

James Webb

The occult is rejected knowledge. It may be knowledge which is actively rejected by an Establishment culture, or knowledge which voluntarily exiles itself from the courts of favour because of its recognised incompatibility with the prevailing wisdom. The word “occult” means “hidden,” and in this idea lies the key to the occult’s forbidding appearance. Something may be hidden because of its immense value, or reverently concealed from the prying eyes of the profane. But this hidden thing may also have achieved its sequestered position because the Powers That Be have found it wanting. Either it is a threat and must be buried, or simply useless, and so forgotten.

– James Webb, The Occult Underground

Another influential writer on the occult, James Webb (1946-1980), was neither so open-minded nor so lucky. His works, such as The Occult Underground and The Occult Establishment, are tainted by a curious smug disdain for their subject matter, perhaps influenced by his background: unlike the self-educated Wilson, Webb had a conventional upper-class British education at Harrow and Cambridge. Wilson, who wrote a never-published introduction to The Occult Establishment, observed that the object of Webb’s books was “to demonstrate that ‘the occult’ is merely a curious aberration of the human mind, a proof that man has failed to outgrow primitive superstition, and that one of his most incorrigible characteristics is his longing for the comfort offered by fake messiahs and gurus.”

Webb was nevertheless influential, if not in promoting esoteric themes, at least in presenting them and fitting them into a larger picture of Western cultural currents. In a preface to The Occult Underground, he contended that “to ignore the occult revival of the 19th century is to ignore a large slice of modern intellectual development, and that the proper understanding of the workings of the occult mind explains much which has puzzled commentators on the history of the last fifty years as well.” Webb’s books explore figures such as Blavatsky and the Theosophists, Jiddu Krishnamurti, the French occultists Éliphas Lévi and Joséphin Péladan, as well as the occult influences on more celebrated figures such as William Butler Yeats and Adam Mickiewicz, who is generally regarded as Poland’s greatest poet.

Webb’s last book, The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers, was published in 1979, and as a whole reflects both Webb’s strengths and weaknesses as an observer of the esoteric scene. It is thorough and for the most part accurate, and in many ways remains the best treatment of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky milieu, but like Webb’s other works it is flawed by a condescension toward its subject matter as well as by occasional wild lapses of judgment. In an early chapter, Webb bizarrely tries to prove that Gurdjieff was the same person as Ushe Narzunoff, a Central Asian adventurer, an argument that falls apart as soon as one looks at two photographs of the men (helpfully reproduced in Webb’s book), which display the obviously Asiatic Narzunoff and the equally obviously Caucasian Gurdjieff. (Webb claims, unconvincingly, that the photos were doctored.)

The Harmonious Circle was written in a phase of Webb’s life when he was confronting mental breakdown. Joyce Collin-Smith, sister-in-law of Ouspensky’s disciple Rodney Collin, recalls that at one point he phoned her “saying he was being ‘persecuted’ by his publishers and adding wildly that the French Freemasons had got it in for him.” Moreover, he was no longer quite so capable of treating his material with upper-class British disdain. In a letter to Collin-Smith from this period, he writes, “My life has just emerged from a nightmare…. I had a full scale nervous breakdown, with hallucinations, visions, and a fine repertoire of subjectively supernatural experiences. Hoist with my own petard, I would say. Despite the undoubtedly hallucinatory nature of many of my experiences, a residue remains which I simply have to take seriously. I can’t fit all the altered states of consciousness into one system. Gnosticism and some of the Indian systems seem to provide the best framework.” Not long thereafter he put a shotgun to his head and killed himself.

Webb’s work, though flawed in certain respects, had the great advantage of drawing together many disparate strands of history and thought and weaving them together into a readable and intelligent portrait, and as such he stands as an important precursor not only of New Dawn but of the burgeoning trend, led by Antoine Faivre, emeritus professor at the Sorbonne, to study esotericism as a legitimate part of the Western legacy.

Other influences on New Dawn clearly include another Australian publication, Nexus, which has been published since 1986 and, by its own description, covers “health breakthroughs, future science and technology, suppressed news, free energy, religious revisionism, conspiracy, the environment, history and ancient mysteries, the mind, UFOs, paranormal and the unexplained.” Another, less recognised influence was Critique, a magazine published by Bob Banner out of Santa Rosa, California, in the late 1980s, whose subtitle, “Exposing Consensus Reality,” has been echoed by New Dawn’s “Challenging Consensus Reality.”

What is Consensus Reality?

What, then, is the consensus reality that New Dawn is challenging? It is the idea, reinforced by mainstream media and mainstream thought, that the truth occupies a narrow bandwidth of reality that coincides with the obvious, the predictable, and the knowledge that is supposedly proven and unassailable. We have already seen one good reason for challenging this conventional notion of reality: it has huge blind spots, which are exposed every time some totally unforeseen development – sudden invasions, political upheavals over entire regions, shocking and inexplicable attacks by terrorist groups – shakes the world. The standards of normalcy do not help us very much when we are confronted with these events, which occur precisely when things are not normal – when ordinary systems of justice and economic distribution cease to operate; when large masses of people have no influence on political authority; when individuals feel that their only chance to make their voices heard is through violence. The fact that such incidents occur – and occur with such frequency – indicates that the mainstream perspective is, if not completely wrong, at least seriously incomplete.

Sixteen years ago, in a 1995 interview with GROK magazine, New Dawn editor David Jones observed, “Look at the profile of a ‘successful’ journalist. They know to write within the accepted parameters. They don’t dare say that the ‘emperor has no clothes…’ They certainly don’t want to upset the consensus reality. They’d be out of a job. If you are a mainline journalist you stay on safe ground between the well-defined goal posts…. If you want to be acceptably different you write about the environment…You express outrage over human rights violations a thousand miles away, and put an Amnesty International sticker on your car… That’s your limit.”

“On the immediate level,” Jones added, “New Dawn strives to present the ‘other side of the story.’ And this is just not a convenient cliché.” Regarding the AUM Supreme Truth group, a Japanese new religious movement that carried out a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, Jones said, “The underlying premise of the Establishment media reporting is ‘Oh, these people are a crazy religious cult, ipso facto they’re guilty…. Hey, everyone knows people with strong religious convictions are potential mass-murderers.’ In response, New Dawn asks, ‘What is going on here?… What do these AUM Supreme Truth people actually believe, where are they coming from, and what is their motive, if any?’ Invariably, when you start to dig beneath the sensationalised radio, TV, and newspaper stories, a bigger picture begins to form.” In order to enable readers to draw their own conclusions, New Dawn published the AUM Supreme Truth’s statement of its motives for its acts. (At more or less the same time, Gnosis did something similar, reprinting the official statements of the Solar Temple, a French cult nineteen of whose members had committed mass suicide in October 1994.)

New Dawn started in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, one of the strangest and most ambiguous wars of recent decades. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was on the surface a clear-cut act of aggression, but serious questions remain about the US government’s response to border tensions that had been between Kuwait and Iraq before the invasion took place. At that time, April Glaspie, then American ambassador to Iraq, told Hussein, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait…. [US Secretary of State] James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasise this instruction.” While the US maintained that this did not give Hussein, then an American protégé, carte blanche to invade, he clearly took it as such. Was this merely a colossal blunder on the part of the US State Department? Was it the result of some grand but nefarious strategy for bringing Saddam, and Iraq, to heel?

“New Dawn made its appearance at this time as a photocopied 32-page desktop published zine,” Jones recalls. “Our first issues dwelt on the US war crimes in the Gulf conflict, the dangers of a so-called New World Order run by the UN Security Council on behalf of the big Western powers, economic exploitation of the nations of the global South, and the role of intelligence agencies in international affairs.

“Over the following months we expanded into other ‘controversial’ areas such as the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade, international terrorism, banking, and the subversion of sovereign nations. Gradually our subscription list grew and we had enough money to actually print the magazine. By May 1992 we were printing 1,000 copies of a bimonthly 40-page New Dawn magazine.”

Over the years, New Dawn gave similar coverage to Libya’s alleged role in the Lockerbie airline bombing of 1988; the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993; and the bombings of the Oklahoma City US federal building in 1995.

“It can be a painful experience having your cherished beliefs and conditioned prejudices upset,” Jones observed in the GROK interview. “Depending on a person’s ‘conditioned thinking’ New Dawn, at various times, has been called ‘extreme left-wing,’ ‘extreme right-wing,’ ‘nazi,’ ‘anarchist’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘crazy’… You name it. Christian fundamentalists see Satan, rightists condemn us as left-wing radicals and doctrinaire leftists denounce us as fascist loonies. Our response is, ‘Look in the mirror… what do you see?’

“One prominent Melbourne professional ‘skeptic’ angrily denounced New Dawn on his radio program. Despite the fact that what he said was simply incorrect, it revealed more about his thought-processes or lack of them.” (This last remark serves as a reminder that self-proclaimed “skeptics” and “skeptical inquirers” are among the most bigoted and closed-minded individuals on the current cultural scene.)

New Dawn Readers

If none of these appellations quite fits, who, then, are New Dawn’s readers? In the first place, they are probably independent-minded. Because so much of the material in the magazine challenges political shibboleths on all bands of the political spectrum, readers of this magazine are likely to be neither left-wing nor right-wing in any pure sense of those terms. And this is an important point. There is often a demand for consistency in one’s political beliefs, but this kind of consistency usually amounts to buying one’s beliefs wholesale: if you agree with the left (or the right) on issue X, you are automatically expected to agree with it on issue Y. On the face of it, however, there is no reason that the right, the left, or the centre should have the monopoly on truth. In fact a reasonable person might agree with the American philosopher Ken Wilber, who once observed that no one is brilliant enough to be completely wrong.

Jones has pointed out that New Dawn readers “want something more… Something that transcends the ‘modern’ values, concepts, and relationships that are totally incompatible with nature, as well as with their own inner aspirations, capacities, and identity.

“We’ve got nonconformist, renegade Christians, Muslims, and New Agers. A good percentage of readers are seriously interested in metaphysics, and many would believe, like Camille Paglia, that God is humanity’s most important invention. As expected, New Dawn readers are hyperskeptical of the mainline media and prefer to buy their reading matter at obscure bookshops. There’s a high level of interest in all things alternative, particularly related to health, new science and religion. New Dawn readers don’t feel themselves ‘victims’, just people out to handle the problems of this life, with their sights set on something higher.”

And it may be in the hands of just such people that the destiny of humankind lies. We live in an age that is threatened not so much by the possible triumph of the wrong ideology as by the triumph of ideologues as a whole. Their opposites are free men and women who have abandoned the mental crutches of credos and slogans and taken the responsibility to think and act for themselves.

The Russian esotericist Boris Mouravieff, writing in the 1960s, said that the hope of the world lies in what he called the “new man,” the individual who is intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually awake. Can these new men and women be found among the readership of New Dawn? Of course I have no way of knowing. But I remain convinced that those who will form the vanguard of humanity over the next century, and who represent the best prospects for the human race, will share many of the values that New Dawn readers hold most dear.

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RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty years of experience of studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His latest book is The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe. He is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). Smoley is also the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books. His website is www.innerchristianity.com.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 126 (May-June 2011).

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