When people stop believing in God, to paraphrase G K Chesterton, they do not believe in nothing - they are happy to believe in anything. He was writing at a time when religious faith was trembling at the knees; since then, it has nosedived. Quite what Chesterton would say if he wandered into a modern bookshop is anyone's guess. Astrology, meditation, tantric sex, feng shui, UFOs, reincarnation, crystals, auras, runes, witchcraft, healing, prophecy, shamans, Gaia - the barrage of recipes for mending our broken world and healing our bruised spirits would probably make him want to stick his head in the oven.
Indeed, it has become commonplace to observe that the only healthy organ in the book trade is the Mind, Body and Spirit section. The New Age has emphatically dawned, and it winks at us from the shelves with self-adoring titles that give even semi-rational passers-by the creeps. The Infinite Mind. Discover Your Destiny. Seven Steps to Eternity. The Sacred Balance. The Art of Everyday Ecstasy. Dancing in the Flames. Ladder to the Moon. The Wings of Joy. Hot Chocolate for the Mystical Soul. They feel at once grandiose, churned-out and interchangeable, like paint colours - and just as open to scornful parody. "From Self-esteem to Shelf-esteem," I muttered, as I browsed among these mushy waterfalls and serpents, moons and stars. The Power of Selfish Steam. Snake Oil for the Troubled Heart. Please Leave a Massage After the Tone.
In fact, there is something rather moving about all this cosmic soul-searching. It testifies, if nothing else, to the keen and mainly unslaked thirst for happiness and wisdom that exists in the prosperous world. And it reminds us that the human desire for transcendence is pretty much inexhaustible.
Even the crankiest of the new manifestoes cannot easily be contradicted by established religion: there is nothing on these shelves that is more noticeably outlandish than a belief in resurrection, water-into-wine miracles or virgin births. But the great religious myths and parables have been sanctified by grand literature. The self-help jargon that dominates the Mind, Body and Spirit section, in contrast, squats smugly in language no different from those sloganeering business manuals with titles like How to Become an Instant Millionaire and Still Watch Telly All Day.
Anyone seeking a navigational aid through these sometimes mesmeric seas could hardly do better, however, than William Bloom's anthology of set texts, Holistic Revolution: the essential New Age reader. A collection of extracts from the influential mothers and fathers of their genres, it embraces new science (James Gleick, Rupert Sheldrake and Danah Zohar), psychology (Jung, Reich), the environment (Lovelock, Porritt, Ben & Jerry), health, feminism, magic and myth. For some reason, it includes a crafty dialogue about the road to enlightenment by Carlos Casteneda, which is famous for having been fabricated. But the book is a spacious and interesting attempt to establish - if this isn't a heresy by definition - something like the canon of the New Age.
Fred Frohock is on somewhat thinner ice in his attempt to link science and mysticism in Lives of the Psychics. He introduces his book with a weak parable about his daughter, who dreamed, on the eve of her father's departure to Spain on a business trip, of a plane crash. Sure enough, in Spain, a plane did crash - although not the one that Frohock was on. The author wants us to find this remarkable, but children whose fathers are about to fly somewhere are quite likely to dream of plane crashes: it is a dream cliche. Nevertheless, the author sets about tracing the scientific ripples from such inexplicable phenomena. He concludes (how did you guess?) that the world is a stranger place than we might suspect, riven with cosmic energies we can barely imagine.
Richard Bach became a celebrity many years ago with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book of dreamy captions to some fuzzy pictures of gulls in flight. I dimly recall a storyline in which our hero - Jonathan Livingston, I presume - overcame his own fear of crashing into the sea. But my mind is hazy, because the book was accompanied by a Neil Diamond soundtrack in which the singer growled out a few platitudes about sleeping, dreaming, soaring and so on.
Anyway, Bach has returned to the sky in his new book, Out of My Mind, which describes how his brooding about modern aircraft design led him into a dreamy encounter with a bewitching woman engineer from 1923, who lived in a parallel time and visited troubled flyers with elegant solutions to mechanical glitches. I suppose that, given the amount of disbelief we have to suspend to buy this little fable in the first place, it ought not to matter that, in 1923, women were barely allowed to vote, let alone loop the loop. But it does matter rather a lot, because, as it turns out, the book is little more than a dressed-up elegy to a vanished age before computers - a gilded world of leather straps, open hatches and splashing about in the air.
Like much holistic writing, this teeny book seems built to encourage us to let go of our limited horizons and open ourselves up to transcendent new possibilities. It is ironic, then, that it amounts to little more than a nostalgic sigh for the good old days. This, it transpires, is one of the governing ironies of much New Age writing. It presents itself as a furious plea for liberation, urges us to surf over the conventions of established religion or - especially - bourgeois materialism. It wants to refresh the world through spiritual renewal. Yet, in practice, it turns out to be abidingly nostalgic for an often imaginary past. Of all the myths that buttress the New Age, none is more potent than that of the noble savage, no figure more sacred than the Ameri-can Indian who glimpsed holiness in the dazzle of sunlight on a wet leaf. The central pulse of the New Age - a holistic concern for the environment - is a serious and urgent matter. But it is done few favours by being roped into these essentially Luddite tracts, which are opposed to anything that smacks of new technology or chemistry (soulless, obviously) and sentimentally in thrall to ancient folklore (what Chesterton might have termed a load of cabbala).
They are also oddly sanitised, these anthems to transformation and rebirth. They are exceptionally tidy-minded, all seven steps to this and five paths to that. The greetings-card slush that informs the titles gives the game away: this is the corner for the clean mac brigade. In Mind, Body and Spirit, even sex doesn't sound like it has anything to do with pleasure (let alone anguish). It is too busy being part of our quest for inner healing. Again, there is an old puritan urge hiding behind these pretty waterfalls and sunsets. Anyone wishing to enter the New Age had better stub out that cigarette pretty damn fast, and hide the Beaujolais under the ginseng.
Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS