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The Celestine Prophecy, or Old Socialism for a New Age

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The success of The Celestine Prophecy proves there’s always money to be made by telling people exactly what they want to hear. Although the book claims to be “an adventure” about the coming spiritual revolution in world consciousness, its meandering story is merely a pretext to link a series of didactic dialogues and “feel-good” predictions for the near future. In its slick packaging, the book serves as a sort of tabloid psychic for the “smart set.”

I first learned of James Redfield’s New Age novel in 1994 when a producer recommended it to me. I next heard it praised by a casting agent on her voice mail recording. The Hollywood Reporter reported that Cathy Lee Crosby was trying to option its film rights. When I finally got around to reading it on the New York set of The Money Train, six different women approached me to admire my taste. Curiously, all praise has come from women. Men could only comment that they heard good things about it — from wives and girlfriends. Whatever its faults, the book appears to be a chick magnet.

The Celestine Prophecy’s plot is a paint-by-number utopian potboiler. An Outsider enters a Utopian Society in which he learns New Things about human interrelations. (Sharing, caring, and a clean environment are healthful for children and other living things. Greed, competition, and Western patriarchy are sickening the planet.) The Outsider is Skeptical at first, but the Utopia is filled with Beautiful And Compassionate People who explain their world to him with Tolerance And Understanding. Left free to decide for himself, the Outsider’s Mind comes to realize what his wiser Feelings have all along intuited: that this New Society is the inevitable Wave Of History. He has seen The Future, and knows that it is a Good Thing.

In The Celestine Prophecy, the Outsider is a yuppie who is vaguely dissatisfied with his successful life. Something is missing. He coincidentally meets an old flame — a beautiful, liberated, thirtysomething yuppette — who tells him of an ancient manuscript of Nine Insights found in the rain forests of Peru. (Where else, but a rain forest?) She only knows the First Insight, and it concerns coincidences.

Coincidences are spiritual harbingers, and the First Insight is that many people throughout the world will one day notice that they’re having an awful lot of coincidences, and that it must all mean something. This mass awareness and yearning for something more (at least, among the enlightened) will spark a New Age in spirituality, science, politics, and psychology.

Flaky readers seeking personal validation will interpret their buying this book as just such a coincidence, proving both its thesis and their own spiritual advancement. Redfield knows how to stroke a crowd’s ego, making it clear that such silly happenstances are included in what he means: If you bought the book, you’re likely hot stuff. (Skeptics may wish to peruse John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy, in which Paulos demonstrates via probability formulas just how common “coincidences” are in day-to-day life.)

The Celestine Prophecy was initially self-published to much word-of-mouth success on the New Age circuit, and for whatever reason, Warner Books made no effort to correct its typos, redundancies, inaccuracies, and missing colons and comas. Maybe Warner, stumped by the book’s success, thought it safest to publish as is. Or maybe after proving publishers wrong, Redfield refused to let anyone tinker with his masterpiece.

Typos aside, consider the general sloppiness. A priest is described as sandy-haired. Two pages later, he is brown-haired. Another character refers to the “sixth decade of the twentieth century,” obviously (from the context) meaning the 1960s — the seventh decade.

Consider Redfield’s style. His book abounds with three imprecise adjectives — beautiful, incredible, amazing. He uses these three abstract words to describe people, places, ideas, everything. Redfield also lacks a sense of voice. Every character sounds like every other character — American or Peruvian, urban or rural, educated or not. And everyone keeps looking at the yuppie, at each other, at everyone and everything, “with regard.”

The Insights are not original. The Third Insight states that the universe is energy and can be mentally controlled, an old New Age chestnut going back to The Kyballion (1912), which, like Redfield, offered quantum physics for scientific support. Fantasists have long toyed with quantum theory (Darker Than You Think, Prince of Darkness, Quarantine), but Redfield’s quantum fantasizing is more egregious because, although Warner is selling The Celestine Prophecy as fiction, readers are expected to buy it as truth: The book includes a subscription form for Redfield’s newsletter on his continuing spiritual Insights.

The Insights’ implied politics explain the book’s appeal. Deep in the pristine Peruvian rain forests, the yuppie discovers that these “ancient” manuscripts recorded by indigenous Third World peoples confirm every prejudice of aging liberal Boomers — and offer comfort for their waning youth!

Characters range in age from 30s-50s. (Boomer demographics, when the book was first released). Couples usually comprise older women, younger men. Nothing wrong with that, except that its consistency appears calculated. Everything about The Celestine Prophecy appears calculated to please Boomers — especially Boomer women. Our yuppie meets no conventional Cosmo beauties, yet every woman in the book is unfailingly attractive. These older women remain beautiful because of their spiritual glow. Literally. Everything emits an aura, which can be seen by staring hard enough. But only progressive, creative, personally fulfilled people glow nicely, not the repressed or mean-spirited. Luckily for these ladies, they are all smart, self-actualized, career gals. You just know that none ever ever did anything so self-defacing as bake cookies or vote Republican.

In short, the book paints a future in which physical beauty is determined by one’s opinions and lifestyles. An aura’s brightness and colors are directly proportional to one’s politics and behavior. The more progressive your thoughts, the more you recycle for a clean environment, the more attractive your glow. What a solace to aging liberal women, to know that they shall one day outshine their younger, more conservative sisters.

Remember how the universe is all energy? Well, the Insights also teach that children need energy growing up — for that healthy glow! So people shouldn’t have more children than they can energize — which is achieved by looking at children “with regard”. One to zero child per couple is ideal. Good for the child, and good for the planet.

Typical of Redfield’s loopily unrealistic characters: a fortysomething Peruvian peasant with only one child, which she bore in her late 30s, by a younger husband. (Finally, an indigenous Third World peasant that American feminists can identify with!)

More good news from these “ancient” Insights. It’s unimportant that a child be raised by his own parent(s), only that he be raised by at least one caregiver committed to focusing all of his or her energy (literally) onto that child. Welcome news to single parents who deposit their kids at daycare.

Food is an important source of spiritual energy. Vegetables contain more and purer energy than meat. Just compare their glows. (Naturally, vegans glow attractively than meat-eaters.) The book’s “scientific explanation” is that plant energy is depleted when consumed by cows. Thus does Redfield mix religion, pseudo-science, and squishy-left politics in typical New Age fashion.

But the highest concentrations of energy reside in pristine rain forests, so it’s important to leave them uncut, and to reduce the human population to 100 million to create room for new forests. This gels neatly with the optimum one-to-zero child per caregiver.

Money and greed are bad energy. (And make you glow ugly.) In the future there will be no money. People will take what they need and give back what they can. Sounds like Marxism? Yes, but Communism only failed, the yuppie learns, not for economic reasons, but because the Soviets were atheistic and materialistic, rather than spiritual. But in the coming New Age, people will be spiritual, so they won’t want unnecessary material goods which rape the planet, and which corporations convince us we want, but don’t really. And because everyone will be Really Nice, nobody will feel pressured to horde more food than they need for their own use, because they won’t be afraid that it won’t be there if they need it, because, it will. So there’ll be plenty for everyone. Especially since there’ll only be 100 million people on the planet (at most, but hopefully less), which is really all that a healthy Earth can sustain and still have room left over for all those new rain forests.

Barter will be the “new” currency. And those without skills or goods to barter can still trade energy for food, in the form of spiritual insights. Everyone’s got those! But here Redfield (with his usual sloppiness) contradicts himself. He’d previously stated that minor personal insights (as opposed to the Big Nine Insights) are exchanged whenever two people meet, even if they are unaware of it. So really, neither party owes anything to the other. The poor man earns no food for his insight, having already been paid with the rich man’s insight, even if the rich man was unaware of providing one. (It all has something to do with the coincidences in every encounter.)

These internal contradictions typify The Celestine Prophecy’s overall sloppiness. Apart from its crude pseudo-science, its lazy caricatures of machinegun toting Latin American troops, and its indistinguishable characters mouthing wooden dialogue and kindergarten economics while observing each other “with regard,” Redfield’s book implodes under the slipshod presentation of his self-contradictory message.

Then there’s the matter of the form in the back of the book. For $20 you get his newsletter. For $50 Redfield will personally record an audio tape — just for you! — analyzing your unique astrological aspects within the context of his Insights. Redfield accepts check or credit card — but makes no provisions for paying him with your own energy or insights. At least not in my edition. What gives? I read the book. My energy can’t be all that bad. I glow nice.

Since the book’s success, Redfield has squeezed every penny from the sequel gravy train. Warner has released a Tenth Insight and Eleventh Insight, and some other books expanding on Redfield’s Insights. There’s even a Pocket Guide to the Nine Insights for readers who find his dummied-down first book too intellectually taxing.

Of course, nothing I say can dampen The Celestine Prophecy’s popularity, because its appeal is not based on significant or original insights, but on making its core fan base feel good. It tells its readers exactly what they want to hear about themselves and their future. Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying a fantasy (however crudely written), but pity those who read the Celestine series for real spiritual insight.

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About Thomas M. Sipos

  • Sarah eg.

    A beautiful, incredible and amazing review! Funny as heck, too. Thanks for the spiritual insights.

  • http://www.techfluid.org Chari

    Hysterical review.

  • CD

    Great review. I’m an archaeologist working in the Andes so I’ve had a bunch of people recommend this book to me. Now I have a general idea of what I’m up against. I’m going to go read it now (at a local New Age bookshop; I can’t bring myself to buy it) to see in detail how Redfield’s view of Peru’s present and prehistory compares to mine.

  • http://www.darchangels.com Darchangels

    Its time to deconstruct the new age myth

  • Steve

    I read this review with regard!

    For a while I was wondering if I was alone in thinking that every character in the book spoke as if I was being lectured by Redfield himself. Maybe this is a coincidence and the universe is trying to tell me something!