November 5, 2010

Vitan and the New Age

Vitvan and the School of the Natural Order: New Age Culture with a Do It Yourself Ethic

by Daniel Gustav Anderson


Author's Note: This is a paper I presented at the 2010 Western Literature Association conference in Prescott, Arizona, USA. I think it offers some ways to advance the conversation in integral studies by considering some paths not yet taken, rather than strictly “new” developments: first, to see ways in which integral theory as we know it now relates to the older but still demonstrably “modern” tradition of New Age thought and practice, and more specifically still, to reflect on the contributions made by the great American yogin Ralph Moriarity de Bit, who taught under the name Vitvan and founded the School of the Natural Order. The School persists today at the Home Farm in Baker, Nevada, USA, and also online (www.sno.org), presenting a way of learning that in my judgment has much to offer contemporary researchers in integral studies, integral theory, noetic studies, bioregionalism, ecocriticism, and those interested in cultural life of the North American West. –D.G.A.
In the English-speaking world, the term “New Age” connotes a spectrum of practices and belief systems that are first held to be alternative to dominant or mainstream canons of value, and second more appropriate to contemporary conditions and future growth: hence the name, New Age. Inclusive of its analogues and antecedents, such as spiritism, automatic writing, and Theosophy, New Age practices, doctrines, and communities have been features of the popular-literary, spiritual, and material landscapes of the North American West since before the First World War. One might go so far as to say that New Age is a cultural form indigenous to the American West: this identity of Western places with New Age practices is reflected metonymically in our everyday speech as well as our cultural criticism, as in Michel Foucault's considerations on the “Californian cult of the self” and Slavoj Zizek's dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” You can get my meaning here with a thought experiment: here in Arizona, when your sister tells you that your niece has dropped out of business school at Arizona State and moved to Sedona, what assumptions do you automatically, even unfairly, make just on the basis of that sliver of information?

This paper proposes to consider the writings of Vitvan (birth name: Ralph Moriarity de Bit), who lived from 1883 through 1964, in the context of his itinerant teaching practice and establishment of more or less stable centers of New Age learning in the West, particularly the School of the Natural Order, and primarily in California, Colorado, and especially Nevada, where the school persists today. Vitvan presented his teachings as appropriate to a New Age and hence understandable only to a select few of his contemporaries, and in its synthesis of Shaktism, astrology, Protestant Christianity, and popularized science, it is clearly recognizable as a New Age teaching in contemporary terms. However, Vitvan's pedagogy is unique among other New Age doctrines in its vigorous attempts at very precise conceptual rigor—Vitvan reorganized his teaching in midlife around the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski—and further, Vitvan's community is unique in that it refused to unquestioningly engage in mainstream consumer capitalist exchange, preferring to self-publish comb-bound volumes instead of the mass-produced paperbacks and other media so typical of the seeker scene of the 1970s and the good-living industry for which Oprah Winfrey still serves as a spokesmodel today. This D.I.Y. ethic sets Vitvan and the School of the Natural Order apart from cognate New Age projects, and anticipates certain of its contemporary themes by some decades.

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