A Review of the Beast and Other News

Here’s a thoughtful review of my book on Aleister Crowley. Would that all his readers were so even-handed… In other news, I’ve just received the copy-edited manuscript of my new book The Secret Teachers of the Western World, which is due out later this year. So far the editor hasn’t pointed out too many glaring errors, but it’s early yet… My online course on “Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline” for the CIIS is moving along, although some students are a bit taken aback by some of Colin Wilson’s remarks about sex. We’re using his book Superconsciousness  – along with readings from my A Secret History of Consciousness and The Caretakers of the Cosmos – and the links between “peak experiences” and sexuality are evidently not crystal clear. But we still have more than a month to go, so with any luck all will be revealed…

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10 thoughts on “A Review of the Beast and Other News

  1. Hi, Gary.

    A few questions that I hope won’t be too burdensome.

    1. How does your forthcoming Secret Teachers… book differ from some of the overviews of this subject we have already from Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Antoine Faivre, and Wouter Hanegraaff? (And please, be sure that this book has an index. That lack was one of the biggest flaws of A Secret History…, although not your fault, I realize).

    2. In A Secret History…, you express reservations about Gebser’s schema in an endnote, using 18th and early-19th Century Classical music as an example. Isn’t it likely that Gebser’s divisions of consciousness are too restrictive and arbitrary, and are best seen as rules of thumb? For instance, Beethoven was, as an artist, Mental-Rational, but his temperament was that of a thoroughgoing Romantic.

    3. Have you read any of the literature on the evolution of consciousness that has appeared since the publication of A Secret History… (e.g., Colin Renfrew), and if so, then is there anything you might recommend?

    P.S. Here is a link to a very interesting article by Ronald Purser, who, to me, convincingly refutes the Gebserian idea that certain developments in Modernism and, by extension, “Cyberspace”, represent evidence of a mutation into aperspectival awareness:

    “[A]ny integral mutation Gebser may have thought was heralded by certain scientific and artistic movements of late Modernism has rather morphed into a Hyper-Modernity. Through the exponential growth of information technologies we increasingly live in simulated environments that collapse space not as a function of time concretion but as an implosion of real space into cyberspace. The result is a hyperperspectival rather than aperspectival mutation.”

    http://online.sfsu.edu/rpurser/revised/pages/Cyberspace%2012.htm .

    1. Hello Kevin. Are your questions a surreptitious interview, or simply for your own edification? In any case:

      1. The Secret Teachers of the Western World is not an academic work, although it is decorated with an adequate number of footnotes. Alas, copy editors ask more and more for writers to footnote practically everything, a sign of our increasing specialization and fetishism about sources and “proof,” and a loss of self-confidence and roots in a common intellectual and cultural history. When a copy editor suggests I tell the reader that Shakespeare’s first name was William, it is a dark time indeed.
      It is work written in the old school style of intellectual history for the intelligent reader, something my models Colin Wilson and Arthur Koestler were masters of and which sadly is a dying art. It is also a work within, rather than about, the esoteric tradition. Or rather, it is not so much a history of esotericism but a history of our “other mode of consciousness,” as exemplified in the esoteric tradition. And of course I plunder gleefully Faivre, Hanegraaff, Versluis, Godwin and other esoteric scholars. And yes, A Secret History of Consciousness could use an index. If it ever goes into a second edition, I’ll ask the publisher to include one.
      But the main difference between my book and the ones you mention is that it sees the evolution of consciousness and the history of esotericism from the perspective of Gebser’s “structures of consciousness” and the insights into the differences between our cerebral hemispheres and their “rivalry” as spelled out in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary.

      2.I don’t express “reservations about Gebser’s scheme” in my remarks about 19th century music. I ask a question. Gebser would be the first one to suggest I do. I think it is presumptuous to say that Gebser’s vision is “restrictive and arbitrary.” Quite the opposite. I find his thought liberating and much less arbitrary than many more acceptable – from the standard scientistic perspective – surveys of the history of consciousness. Like any wide ranging vision, it is open to questions, and the more it raises the better. It would be equally stupid to dismiss it or to accept it unquestioningly. Gebser would certainly not want his readers to swallow whole everything he says. I argue with many brilliant minds, but they remain nonetheless brilliant. If I learn something from them in the process, it is wholly to my benefit.

      3.It depends on what you mean by the “literature on the evolution of consciousness.” I’ve found Steve Mithen’s A Prehistory of the Mind useful, and also David Lewis-Williams The Mind in the Cave. But the evolution of consciousness is not the property solely of scientists. In fact I think we can learn more about consciousness from writers, poets and philosophers. I have learned a great deal about the evolution of consciousness from William Anderson’s work, especially Dante the Maker and The Face of Glory. I also have profited much from George Steiner’s work. Scientists don’t have a monopoly on consciousness. But again, the most important book on the evolution of consciousness I have read in recent years is Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary.

      Thanks for the link, but I have to say that “convincingly refuting Gebser” seems a waste of time, and drags him into the kind of academic squabbling he argues against and which is only an expression of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. And it is not that easy to tell the difference between the breakdown of one structure and the build up of another. I find that recent technological developments such as podcasts and Tivo offer convincing proof – to me at least – that Gebser was accurate in his anticipation of an “irruption of time” into everyday life. When he died, in 1973, one still had to be at a certain place and at a certain time in order to watch or listen to something on television or the radio. Not any more.

  2. Many thanks for the detailed , generous, and informative reply. I didn’t intend to presume, as my questions are indeed merely for my edification, but I am sure that other visitors will find your answers of great value.

    Regrets if I misread your footnote regarding Classical music and the Gebserian categories, but my impression was that it was more a questioning than merely asking a question–though the line separating them can be thin, I realize.

    For the rest, we will have to agree politely to disagree. For me, the presumptuousness lies in any claims that a system , however brilliant and comprehensive, can have more than a heuristic or provisional value at this stage of human awareness and (for lack of a better term) evolution. Purser’s argument deserves a careful reading, I think, regardless of the “stage” it may in itself represent.

    Best regards, and looking forward to the SecretTeachers book.

    1. Many thanks for the link. I know McGilchrist is critical of Jaynes’ theory. If I remember correctly, he says something along the lines of his being right for the wrong reasons. Others have voiced similar insights, but Jaynes’ view still retains importance and gets a mention in Secret Teachers. I agree with what you say about the limits of systems, and I think Gebser would too. But I think perhaps you are seeing a kind of dogmatism in his work that I don’t detect. Or perhaps I’m too casual? Regarding classical music, Beethoven’s late string quartets approach the kind of dissonance that would become commonplace post-Schoenberg, so he does seem to be moving toward the kind of aperspectival position Gebser suggests. But yes, let’s not crystallize into rigid pedants, more royal than the king. I find this does tend to happen with followers of great thinkers, those who inherit the ‘system’ and stick to it unswervingly, like revolutionaries wary of revisionists. Sadly, this happened to Ouspensky, who stuck to the ‘system’ he learned from Gurdjieff, until he admitted at the end of his life that he made a mistake. And in fact, I do take argument with Gebser about his appreciation of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and other esoteric thinkers, who he tends to see as remaining in the mythic or magical structure. I think he misjudged them, just as I think Gurdjieff misjudged Ouspensky and Ouspensky misjudged himself. But this doesn’t refute their work for me; it merely means I disagree with them on these points. Overall, I find their work important and of ultimate value. I tend to make my criticisms in passing, while getting on to what is of essential significance in their ideas, rather than spend much time critiquing it.

  3. P.S. Given your interest in McGilchrist, you might also find interesting the following discussion of McGilchrist’s theory and his critique of Julian Jaynes that was published a few years ago in a multi-part retrospective about Jaynes:

    Bill Rowe, American Journal of Psychology, Fall 2012, Vol. 125, No. 3 pp. 369–392.

  4. I think you’ll find Rowe’s discussion of McGilchrist and Jaynes very interesting. Rowe defends Jaynes, but feels that the two theorists’ views are ultimately more similar than different.

    I hope I did not give the impression that I dismiss or disrespect Gebser, as I assuredly do not. Looking back, I see that “refute” is likely too categorical a term. I am a little bit Nietzschean, though, in that I have an innate distrust of schemata and systems. I do agree with you regarding criticism; that is, in finding the right balance. I think it’s important to read multiple approaches to these important questions, and often that involves actively seeking contrarian views and alternative perspectives.

    McGilchrist’s book, for instance, seems to have been widely acclaimed, yet also to have inspired severe criticism, especially, and this will surprise no one, from the scientistic front, those who find the notion that there can be other ways of knowing viscerally threatening. Some of the questions the critics raise, however, about metaphor and about how well we truly understand the roles of the hemispheres, are worth considering. So, it’s a difficult balance to strike.

    As a side note, your points about Ouspensky are very well taken, and I think that your book about him is one of your most important works, in that it offers information that has not been readily available, and also rights a historical wrong.

    1. I agree with you and Nietzsche about the dangers of systems – the will to one, Nietzsche tells us, is a lack of integrity. But then Nietzsche did try to create a system of his own, unsuccessfully and no doubt thankfully, although The Will to Power is a brilliant outline. I guess the question is whether or not an “existential system” is possible? Can we organize our insights – which is what a system is – so that we have more than brilliant flares of illumination – which is what we have with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and other “nomadic” thinkers – and can survey a whole landscape of meaning for more than a moment, without falling into the trap of “abstract thinking,” basically losing life within the system? I think it is possible although I am not trying to do it myself. Whitehead seems to manage it; he even called philosophy “the critique of abstractions.” But then Process and Reality, where he is the most systematic, is written in a prose hardly any more readable than Heidegger’s. I guess as a popular writer – not half as popular as I’d like to be – I am interested in taking what I can from these ideas and seeing how they link up with others and applying them to life. I’m sure I overlook many fine details, but its the basic punchline that I’m aiming at.

      Take McGilchrist for example. I know he doesn’t think much of the idea of multiple personality but it is an important item in the work of Colin Wilson, so I acknowledge McGilchrist’s reservations, but I don’t let them prevent me some taking what is profitable from Wilson’s reflections on the phenomenon. I also believe that whether or not what McGilchrist says about the cerebral hemisphere’s is absolutely correct, the two different modes of consciousness that he associates with them strike me as undeniable. This is something I write about in relation to Bergson and Whitehead.

  5. I would simply add that the danger of allegedly complete and consistent systems (hasn’t anyone heard of Goedel?!?) extends well beyond the mere intellectual systems in books. As you know (and have personally experienced), Gurdjieff claimed to possess not merely a system, but the system. Ouspensky’s tragedy was that he believed not only in G.’s system, but, even after their rupture, in the very idea of systems for far too long. (Which, to be clear, is not to say that G.’s system does not offer some worthwhile ideas and practices).

    While I well understand the gurus’ (often self-interested) insistence that one needs a “teacher”, and a “group”, I have long believed, and I think the evidence supports me, that far greater dangers attach to handing over one’s body and mind (and cash) to such gurus and their systems than to going one’s own way, alone. The same is true of “master thinkers”.

    For the rest, I think that you do a generally fine job of “popularizing” without over-simplifying, and also of making clear your reservations, qualifications, and differences of opinion in your books. I would encourage you (not that you need my encouragement, of course) to continue that practice. And yes, how best to organize our insights, in your fine phrase, without succumbing to the temptation of system- (and usually empire-) building is a key challenge. But most of all, as you say, applying all this to our lives is critical. That this most crucial element of philosophy is all but lost today is tragic, as well as a clear sigh, to use the Gebserian term, of our Mental-Rational decadence.

    1. All I can say to this is “amen.” Many thanks for this exchange. It has been helpful, to both of us I hope. This seems a good point to leave it for the time being but please stay in touch. It’s always a pleasure to talk with someone who takes these ideas seriously. Work draws me away. All the best.

  6. Thank you, Gary, and the pleasure’s been mine. I’ll certainly drop in from time to time, and in the meantime wish you all the best with your work.

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