Showing posts with label Manley P. Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Manley P. Hall. Show all posts

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Elvis & His Guru

Improbably, this morning’s Los Angeles Times contained an article on the resurgence of interest in spiritualist Manley Palmer Hall (1901-1990), mentioning that a clip from the one film in which Hall made an appearance--the astrological murder mystery When Were You Born? (1938)--was shown as part of an “Occult L.A.” film program curated by Erik Davis. “Occult L.A.” was a program devoted to exploring what is, apparently, an ongoing fascination with the occult that has a long history in, and around, Los Angeles. Although skeptical at first, I decided there may be some merit to the idea that Los Angeles is peculiar in its obsession with the occult, if for no other reason than the way these occult ideas were transmitted by means of Larry Geller (pictured above, with Elvis), whom Elvis met in Los Angeles in 1964 when Geller became his hairdresser. Regarding the so-called “high priest” of the occult Manley Palmer Hall—subject to a newly published biography by L. A. Times staff writer Louis Sahagun—the article avers that “even Elvis was a fan, sending Priscilla Presley to one of the world renowned orator’s lectures because he was afraid of getting mobbed himself.”

There may be some truth to this anecdote. Elvis’ interest in Manley Palmer Hall’s writings dates from 1964 or after, when he fell under the influence of Larry Geller, who introduced Elvis to any number of occult writings over the next few years. According to Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography Elvis (1981), Larry Geller introduced Elvis to the following books, among others:

Vera Stanley Adler, The Initiation of the World
David Anrias, Through the Eyes of the Masters
Alice A. Bailey, Esoteric Healing
McDonald McBain, Beyond the Himalayas
Anne Besant, The Masters
H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine; The Voice of Silence
Paul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself
Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness
Joel Goldsmith, The Infinite Way
Manley Palmer Hall, The Mystical Christ; The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception
C. W. Leadbetter, The Inner Life
The Leaves of Morya's Garden
Nicholas Roerich, Flame in Chalice
Dane Rudhyar, The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East
Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Urantia Book

As Goldman points out, most of these books pre-date Elvis's birth by many years, many of them dating back to the days before and after World War I, when books on spiritualism were tremendously popular. Indeed, Manley Palmer Hall arrived in Los Angeles in 1919, the year after the first World War ended, and soon his career as a student of esoteric and occult religions began. In fact, books on spiritualism were received so enthusiastically around this time period that T. S. Eliot used it in The Wasteland (1922) as a symbol of degradation of myth and ritual in the modern world.

Elvis read these books with great care, writes Goldman, as was evident

from the appearance of his copies, dog-eared, travel-stained, heavily underscored on almost every page. Elvis committed many of the key passages to memory and would recite them aloud while Larry Geller held the book like a stage prompter.... The particular tradition of spiritualism from which stem most of the writings to which Elvis Presley devoted himself for the balance of his life was established in the 1870s in New York City by the notorious and fascinating Madame Blavatsky.... one little volume puporting to be translations by Blavatsky of the most ancient runes of Tibet, The Voice of Silence, was such a favorite of Elvis's that he sometimes read from it onstage and was inspired by it to name his own gospel group, Voice. (Avon paperback edition, 1982, p. 436)

An autodidact, Elvis became especially fascinated by a book titled The Impersonal Life (1917) which carries the name Joseph Benner as its author, although the author purports merely to be the amanuensis of the Divine Being--in other words, the vehicle through which God speaks. According to Goldman, Elvis gave away "hundreds of copies of this book, like an eager evangelist distributing a favorite tract" (p. 439).

Note that the word "spiritualism" as I'm using it does not mean formal religion (orthodoxy). To be "spiritual" does not mean "religious" in the orthodox sense. If you have the occasion to listen to some of Elvis' later live recordings, pay attention for his references to the ideas in these old and sundry books.

Incidentally, Erik Davis' "Occult L.A." program apparently screened an extremely rare film by Curtis Harrington that I'd never heard of, titled Wormwood Star (1956), an early short by Harrington featuring the poetry and painting of occultist Marjorie Cameron, who appeared in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and, later, in Harrington's fine film Night Tide (1961), featuring Dennis Hopper.