The Passing of the Torch

Tracing the lineage of the ancient, secret schools of alchemy, Kabbalah, magic and other esoteric traditions rooted in the atavistic psyche, The Passing of the Torch explores how art was the mechanism by which these clandestine traditions were passed down through generations of artists. Thus, to be initiated in them was also to be able to speak the language of symbolic forms that were embedded in art by previously initiated seers and artists. From its Renaissance flourishing, this practice was subsequently retrieved in early twentieth-century art, most notably in the movements of Dada and Surrealism. This unlikely passing of a torch of hermetica culminated in what can be viewed as a “Return to Eleusis” in California in the mid-1960s.

Eleusis was the famed Greek city that from c.1600 B.C.E. until its sack by the Christian Visigoths in the 4th Century A.D. It was known for being the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a ritual initiation that took place each year in honor of Demeter and Persephone and whose secrecy was so enforced that very little is known about the substance of the rites. This book proposes that a utopian flowering bloomed out of the end of the Beat era in mid-century California and did so with the conscious addition of occult influences on art practices, thereby manifesting one of the greatest shifts in American culture. Through a cross-pollination of art, film, poetry, experimental music, and dance this book explores how Californian culture emerged from a unique convergence of the esoteric traditions of Europe, Eastern philosophies and mystic traditions, and the indigenous cultures of North America. Echoing the Ptolemaic era when occult traditions cross-pollinated, The Passing of the Torch presents the Bay Area as the site of a return to Eleusis, forecasting the unprecedentedly seismic cultural shift which witnessed the McCarthy-era policies of the late 1950s evolve into the Summer of Love in the short course of one decade. Most importantly, this Eleusinian return was unique to California in that it was spirited by the indigenous California practice of “the gathering,” a tradition of the Ohlone, California’s first people, who sought personal transmutation through community, converging all the variegated strains of the creative act into one experience, and believing that only through a collective act could the forces of change take hold.