Category: Notebook

Trickle Down Metaphysics

Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump

Sometime in late 1887 or early 1888, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – unread, unwell, and practically unknown at the time– had an insight that, as far as he could see, would determine the history of Europe, and by default, that of the world, for the next two hundred years. “What I relate,” he wrote in his notebooks (which, after his collapse into madness in 1889 would tragically fall into the hands of his anti-Semitic, Aryan supremist sister) “is the history of the next two centuries.” “I describe what is coming,” he continued, and added ominously “what can no longer come differently…”[1]

What was it that was on its way and whose advance could not be halted? It was, Nietzsche tells us,  “The advent of nihilism.”[2] What exactly nihilism is we will get to shortly. Right now I want to focus on Nietzsche’s philosophical premonition and his sense that what he saw and what he had to say about it, would not be understood by his contemporaries, let alone welcomed by them, but could, with any luck, reach the ears of a later generation. What Trump has to do with this must wait until the punchline.

An Untimely Man

Nietzsche always considered himself a man out of time – in more ways than one. One of his earliest works was entitled Thoughts Out of Season, or, as another translation has it, Untimely Thoughts. Readers of his last works, such as The Antichrist, not published until after his final breakdown, can detect the urgency with which he presented the first – and in the end, only – book of what he had intended to be – but never managed to make – his magnum opus, what he called the Revaluation of All Values.

The original title of this never completed masterwork, The Will to Power, was adopted by his sister and used by her when she presented the large collection of notes Nietzsche left behind after his collapse in Turin as the dismembered masterpiece it never was. This non-book, brilliant as anything Nietzsche ever wrote but not in any way on a par with Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Twilight of the Idols, passed through many hands and reached a reading public in many forms, including the insalubrious shape given it by Nazi hacks, courtesy of his Hitler-loving sister.[3] Did Nietzsche know that his days of sanity were numbered, and that he would not be able to fuse together the disjointed jottings making up The Will to Power into a solid systematic articulation of his thought? Did the sense that time was running out compel him to pull out all the rhetorical stops and put everything he had into the manic burst of creative energy that produced not only The Antichrist, but his last dig at his ex-hero Wagner and what must go down as the strangest autobiography ever written, Ecce Homo? His protestations in this daimonically divine attempt to recount “how one becomes who one is,” that he not be confounded “with what I am not!” suggest as much.[4] The tragedy, as every reader of Nietzsche knows, is that this is exactly what happened to him, in more ways than one.

But even as his sanity was heading toward its sunset, Nietzsche saw himself as ahead of his time. He did not write for today, nor even for tomorrow. As he says in the foreword to The Antichrist – which is as compact a display of Nietzsche’s rhetorical pyrotechnics as we could wish – “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me.” “Some are born posthumously,” he tells us, and he hopes that his readers may be too; he doubts, understandably enough, if they are even living yet.[5]

This sense of being ahead of his time led Nietzsche to remark that he can relate his prognosis for the next two centuries because he has already lost his way in “every labyrinth of the future. ” He tells us he is a “soothsayer bird spirit who looks back when relating what will come.”[6] He not only sees its irrevocable approach, he has experienced it in advance and has come out the other side. He can tell us what is on its way, what it will mean, and what we can do about it, because he has already gone through it. Like a shaman, Nietzsche is the wounded healer who has had the illness we will all shortly contract, and he is here to tell us how we can not only survive it, but may indeed be made more healthy because of it.

Yet Nietzsche can only hope that his readers, his real readers, will arrive at some future point and look back to his writings in order to understand their present. They certainly weren’t many of them around when he was writing. He knew he wasn’t writing for “those for whom there are ears listening today.”[7] His untimeliness, it seems, is inescapable. When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain top to spread the message of the Overman, the townspeople laugh at him.[8] “They do not understand me,” Zarathustra laments. “I am not the mouth for these ears.”[9]

Nietzsche knew this would be the case. In The Gay Science, written just before Zarathustra, he announces for the first time the revelation that is at the heart of Zarathustra’s message, that “God is dead.” Yet the madman who announces this is greeted with the same laughter that meets Zarathustra’s equally portentous proclamations. “I have come too early,” the madman reflects, “my time is not yet.” Although the deed is done its reality has not yet reached the people, even though it was they themselves who committed this theocide.[10] “This tremendous event,” Nietzsche’s madman reflects, “is still on its way.” “Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”[11]

Nietzsche wrote these words in 1882. As I write, 2020, a turbulent year, is heading toward its last season. Almost a century and a half have passed since Nietzsche’s madman entered the marketplace with his lantern lit in the bright morning sun. Close enough, perhaps, to Nietzsche’s “next two centuries” for whatever is on its way to show clear signs of its arrival?

Nihilism

The word “nihilism” was coined by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and first appears in his novel Fathers and Sons, published in 1862. The Latin nihil means “nothing” and so nihilism is the belief in nothing. Whether this means a lack of belief in anything or an active belief in nothing remains debatable. The historian Jacques Barzun, distinguishing the difference between nihilism and anarchism, with which it is often confused, remarked that a “real nihilist believes in nothing and does nothing about it.”[12] The anarchist shares a lack of belief in the same things that the nihilist rejects, but unlike his less motivated cousin, he certainly wants to do something about it. In Turgenev’s time, anarchists – those who believed in no government –  threw bombs at kings and politicians; they were the terrorists of their day. A nihilist in Barzun’s sense would never have bothered with such pointless exertions, and would have dismissed the anarchist’s apolitical idealism as just another illusion.

For Turgenev nihilism had a political and social context. As the title of his novel suggests, this had to do with the inter-generational conflict between the romantics of the 1840s (the fathers) and the “New Men” (sons) of the 1860s.[13] Bazarov, Turgenev’s protagonist, rejects the idealism of the previous generation and denies the reality of any values other than those apprehended by science – which in effect means any value at all, given that aside from practical and utilitarian ones, which can be quantified and measured, science recognises that values, in the idealist sense, do not exist. This “faith” in only what can be known “positively”  – that is, quantifiably – would ironically be christened “positivism,” and became associated with the ideas of the founder of sociology, Auguste Comte. In The Devils, published a decade after Fathers and Sons, Dostoyevsky dramatized the consequences of the nihilism of the New Men when their ideas are put into action. By the end of the novel, there are bodies strewn left and right and a town is in flames, all in the cause of the positive “progressive” ideas of the New Men in town.

Values Old and New

Nietzsche knew of Russian nihilism; he was a reader of Dostoyevsky. But his notion of nihilism was more encompassing than Turgenev’s and did not allow for the religious or spiritual response to it that Dostoyevsky explored in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Nietzsche was aware of the dangers involved in the notion that, if nothing is “true,” in the old, idealist sense of Truth, then everything is “permitted,” and which Dostoyevsky explored in Crime and Punishment. But Nietzsche also saw this terrible “truth” as an opportunity for the creation of new values.

Why were new values needed? Because, as the nihilists believed, the old ones were no longer credible. But Nietzsche disagreed with the nihilists that all values were hollow. Hence his attempt at a “revaluation of all values.” To put it simply, just because the values that had hitherto informed and motivated western civilization were no longer tenable – as Nietzsche believed was the case – this did not mean that we could not create new values to help us past the catastrophe that he saw was unavoidable. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, nihilism can have a positive effect, in that it can clear the ground of outmoded ideas and create a space for a fresh start. There are, however, no guarantees.

The Uncanny Guest

Marx had warned that a spectre was haunting Europe. For Nietzsche, that wraith, communism, was only a party crasher. The true spirit knocking at the door was nihilism. “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” Nietzsche asks. He has arrived, Nietzsche says, because “the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals…”[14]

In a nutshell, Nietzsche is saying that the very pursuit of truth, both in the religious and scientific sense, which the west has held as the acme of perfection, and the obligation to honesty that compels us to obey it, have arrived at the paradoxical truth that there is no “truth” in the sense of some “objective” reality that our intellectual and spiritual integrity demands we acknowledge.

As Nietzsche did, we can see Plato as the source of this pursuit of truth, as his philosophy informed both the Christianity that embodied the spiritual “hunger for truth” and the later science that sought for the physical truth about the universe through mathematics. Nietzsche is saying that this highest value has undermined itself. Our very honesty compels us to recognise that the aim of reaching the goal of Truth has led us to the truth that the goal does not exist, at least not in the sense that we had believed it did. There is no “higher world,” either in a Platonic sense of ideal forms, whose shadow is the world of the senses, or in the Christian form of a loving God who provides meaning to our lives here below.

I should point out that Nietzsche accepted the godless, meaningless universe that the science of his time was actively introducing to western consciousness, and which the science of our own time continues to promote as a “true” vision of things. As the astrophysicist Steven Weinberg remarked, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” This assessment is shared by the majority of his colleagues. Nietzsche agreed that the universe was meaningless, but he believed that our lives didn’t have to be.

Yet even the ‘truth’ of science, which has pulled the carpet out from under any “higher truths,” is not immune from the ‘devaluation’ Nietzsche detects. Science bases itself on “facts,” the kind of measurable, quantifiable knowledge that informed positivism and the New Men. Yet Nietzsche insists that “there are no facts.” What science takes as facts are interpretations. They may have practical value, meaning they work, but ultimately they are really “a kind of error without which a certain type of animal finds it impossible to live.”[15] As the philosopher Bergson, Nietzsche’s younger contemporary, would argue, the intellect is an organ in the service of life.[16] The job of the intellect, Bergson argued, is to scan the world and reduce its complexity to a highly edited picture that enables us to survive and act in it.  He would have agreed with Nietzsche that in the case of facts, “the value for life is ultimately decisive.”[17] The “truth” that science “reveals” does not tell us what the world is “really” like; it is an interpretation that allows us to manipulate the world to our best advantage. The “facts” that science celebrates as the “truth” about the world are really very useful falsifications, informed with the aim of reducing the world’s reality to that amount of it we can make use of.

We may ask whether “the truth that there is no truth” is an insight hoist by its own petard. For if it is true, then there must be, after all, some kind of truth that it shares in, and so it refutes itself. And if it is not true – as it must be if there is no truth – then there is no reason to pay attention to it. But for the moment, let’s let these logical snags lie.

Forgetfulness of Being

Someone who took Nietzsche’s announcement of the advent of nihilism very seriously was Martin Heidegger, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, probably the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. Heidegger agreed with Nietzsche that Plato was the source of the problem, but his response to this was rather different than Nietzsche’s. Whatever we may think of his ideas – and Nietzsche wanted nothing more than that we should think our way through them – we have to admit that Nietzsche is one of, if not the most readable of philosophers. Not many are. Bergson, whom we’ve mentioned, is one. Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard are too. But most philosophers are not page turners and the worst offenders in this regard are German – that is why Nietzsche is such an exception. He even said that he wished he hadn’t written Thus Spoke Zarathustra in German.

Heidegger falls into the unreadable philosopher camp. Where Nietzsche distils his ideas into their most compact form and often invites his reader to complete the thought, using punctuation in a way that expresses his meaning as much as his words do, Heidegger is often prolixity itself, forcing his reader to proceed at a snail’s pace through his eccentric use of otherwise familiar words and his frequent neologisms, in contrast to Nietzsche’s exhilarating dance. It is a shame that Nietzsche was not around and compos mentis enough to be able to comment on Heidegger’s interpretation of his work – or indeed on that of so many others. One suspects that his great philosophical descendant may have been one of those whom Nietzsche worried would “confound him” with what he “was not,” as so many did. Because, from what we can take as Nietzsche’s point of view, this is exactly what Heidegger did.

One may be excused for wondering if “the secret king of thought,” as Heidegger’s student and mistress Hannah Arendt called him, was doing his best to out philosophise Nietzsche, as Hegel, another difficult German thinker, had out philosophised all philosophy before him.[18] Some Nietzsche scholars, such as Michael Tanner, have taken Heidegger to task for taking “the view that the ‘real’ Nietzsche is to be found in the notebooks,” a view, we’ve seen, that was begun and promoted by Nietzsche’s odious sister.[19] This, Tanner argues, allowed Heidegger “to peddle his own philosophy as deriving from and also critical of Nietzsche,” which is exactly what Heidegger does.[20]

Where Nietzsche believes that he has seen through the falsity of metaphysics, which we can understand as rational speculation on the character of a “higher,” “beyond,” or “transphysical” world, as the Greek prefix “meta” indicates, Heidegger one ups him by including Nietzsche’s notion of “the will to power” as the last expression of the metaphysics Nietzsche wanted to undermine. Nietzsche believed he had escaped from the limits and constraints of metaphysical thinking and that the new values he foresaw would provide men and women in the “post-metaphysical world” with inspiration to create a new vision of human existence. According to Heidegger, Nietzsche had fooled himself, and was blind to the fact – which Heidegger, of course, saw very clearly – that what he in fact had done was to bring western metaphysics to its destined conclusion.

Heidegger spells this out in his essay “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead.’”[21] Briefly put, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s notion that “the will to power,” which he posits as the driving force behind life – an idea that influenced, among others, Alfred Adler and Adolf Hitler – proceeds by creating values, keeps it within the purely human realm and maintains the perception of the world as ready for our use. For Heidegger, this means that Nietzsche, like all the philosophers before him, remains blind or inattentive to what Heidegger considers the fundamental concern of thought: the question of being.

A Wrong Turn at Plato

Heidegger agreed with Nietzsche that the road the west had taken since Socrates had led to the uncanny guest at our door – or, as I hope to shortly show, sitting in our living room. But where Nietzsche saw the loss of instinct and contact with the vital powers of life through the rise of Socratic rationalism, Heidegger saw something that he felt was more fundamental: loss of contact with being itself. What is being? That is a good question and one that Heidegger believed the west had lost sight of when Socratic reason ousted the early mythopoetic philosophising of the pre-Socratics from pride of place.[22]

We become aware of being when the fact of our own existence, or that of anything else, strikes us as surprising. This is not a definition of being – it defies that – but a way of recognising when we are remembering it. Because for Heidegger, most of the time we do not remember it; we suffer from what he calls “forgetfulness of being.” This was a diagnosis of modern humanity that he shared with the esoteric teacher Gurdjieff, who, I must say, can at times be as unreadable as Heidegger; see his monumental masterwork of digression, parenthetical remarks, and dependent clauses, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.[23] Gurdjieff also shared with Heidegger the belief that the one sure-fire method of dissipating our forgetfulness of being was to achieve and maintain a vivid awareness of the reality of our death. We can say that both saw the virtue in Dr Johnson’s remark, often quoted by Colin Wilson, that “the thought that one will be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.” When the mind is thus concentrated, we are no longer forgetful of our being.

Heidegger believed that our forgetfulness began when Being – he capitalises the fundamental fact of existence to distinguish it from the plurality of existing things, i.e. “beings” – was lost sight of by Plato and the philosophers that followed him. The pre-Socratic philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles – all experienced a kind of primal awe in the face of existence. Their response to it was a sense of wonder, of astonishment, which informed their mythopoetic attempts to capture some sense of the sheer strangeness of being. We can say that they were fascinated by the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that later philosophers, such as William James, would also ask and which curious children still do, to the dismay of befuddled parents. Socrates’ rationalism, turned into a philosophical system by Plato, put this question aside and sought rational explanations for the world. This, Heidegger argued, started the process of gaining rational control of the world – technology – the first step in the “destining of being” that led, according to Heidegger, to Nietzsche’s will to power, the end of metaphysics, and the advent of nihilism.

Inauthentic Being

Heidegger had an enormous influence on twentieth century philosophy, and he continues to be a powerful influence today. At the risk of simplification, for brevity’s sake, we can say that his influence can be seen in two different currents, flowing from his thought. The first was existentialism. Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche are generally seen as the ‘fathers’ of existentialism, but Heidegger put it firmly on the philosophical and academic map, although, to be sure, Heidegger denied he was an existentialist. The second current, which we will get to shortly, was deconstructionism, and its fellow traveller, postmodernism.

Existentialism is most popularly associated with the French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre and came to wide public attention in the years following the end of WWII. The existentialists of la rive gauche – Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus and their many hangers-on – were a kind of sophisticated anticipation of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, who took up some of their attitudes (among them, promiscuity, heavy drinking, and black turtle necks) and gave them an American twist, although, to be sure, the existentialists were of a much more intellectual stamp than Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. The existentialists accepted the idea that the values of the pre-war period were hollow. Human beings lived in a meaningless, “absurd” world and the people who refused to recognize this – whom Sartre called “salauds,” “bastards” in French – were guilty of what he called “mauvaise foi,” “bad faith,” and lived “inauthentically.” That is, they wallowed in “forgetfulness of being” and accepted the false, but comforting world of human values, consciously ignoring the insight – known to Sartre for some time – that their lives were “contingent,” that is, unnecessary.

The essence of existentialism can be summed up in Sartre’s famous pronouncement that in human beings “existence precedes essence.” This means that, unlike a chair or a computer, we exist before we know why we do. A chair exists because someone made it to perform a function, likewise a computer. What is our function? According to Sartre and Co, we have none. There is no reason for our existence. We are “condemned to be free,” meaning that we have to create our own meaning, something Nietzsche had pointed out half a century earlier. Those who refuse to face this frequently depressing challenge embrace “inauthentic being,” which is a kind of cowardice in the face of our own inexplicable existence. For some, Sartre himself expressed a good deal of bad faith when he tried to wed existentialism, with its emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to make use of his freedom, to accept the burden of choice, with Marxism, which cares nothing about the individual and his freedom, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason.[24] In Sartre’s favour it may be said that his embrace of Marxism was motivated more by his hatred of the bourgeoise – salauds all – than his appreciation of dialectical materialism.

Dismantling Western Metaphysics

The other current flowing out of Heidegger’s dark thought, deconstructionism, took a different route. Where Sartre focussed on Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of human existence, presented in his truncated masterwork Being and Time – Sartre one upped him with his own Being and Nothingness – the deconstructionists who came after Sartre concentrated on a different aspect of Heidegger’s thought.

What was needed in order to mitigate the effects of the destining of Being toward nihilism, Heidegger believed, was to go back to the beginning of western philosophy and dismantle it. Heidegger’s one time teacher, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology – from out of which existentialism sprang – took as his philosophical battle cry “To the things themselves!” In essence this meant forgetting about everything that philosophy had so far believed it had learned about the world and attempting to approach it without presuppositions, to forego trying to explain reality and simply try to describe it. It was this strategy that led to Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology,” ontology being the study of Being.

In Heidegger’s case it was not back to the things themselves, but back to Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides and the other pre-Socratic “thinkers” – not “philosophers,” an important distinction for Heidegger – who were not infected by the Socratic fascination with reason.[25] If we were to remember Being, we had to return to when our amnesia set in, and try to catch the forgetfulness before it established itself as a particularly pernicious habit.

To this end Heidegger spoke of what he called “the destruction of metaphysics” or “the destruction of the history of ontology,” the taking apart of the whole edifice of western philosophy, its slow and painstaking dismantling.[26] This was to be the focus of the projected second part of Being and Time, which Heidegger eventually abandoned, perhaps recognising that producing another obscure weighty tome would add more to the very edifice he wanted to take down. In later years he wrote essays on language, art, poetry, technology and exchanged the polarity of Being and Time for that of “lighting” and “presence.” Lichtung, lighting or, as it is sometimes translated, “opening,” is the space in which the presence – Anwesenheit – of Being can appear. Truth for Heidegger is alētheia, “unconcealment,” a revealing of the “things themselves,” and not how they appear when we see them as “useful”.[27]

This was the point of the destruction of the history of ontology: to open the doors of western philosophy’s perception, to restore what the poet Gottfried Benn called “primal vision,” to achieve the radical astonishment in the face of Being that the earliest thinkers experienced, and to encounter its presence, directly, unmediated, without the carapace of millennia of concepts and suppositions.[28]

Deconstruction Sets

Someone who picked up on this aspect of Heidegger’s thought was the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the most well-known proponent of the philosophical and literary movement known as deconstructionism. This got its start in the 1960s – as did postmodernism, with which it is generally allied. In little more than a decade, the two would pretty much conquer the academic world, especially in the United States, were academics are routinely cowed by anything coming over from Europe. Derrida was also heavily influenced by Nietzsche.

The name “deconstructionism” alone should give us an idea of what it is about. Like Heidegger, Derrida wants to dismantle western philosophy, and like Nietzsche he agrees that the pursuit of truth that has engaged philosophy and other disciplines for centuries, is chimerical. But Derrida goes further than both in undermining the notion that philosophy at any time was a conduit through which the truth about reality could ever reach human consciousness.

Heidegger began his destruction of metaphysics by abandoning his commitment to Husserl’s approach to philosophy. Husserl would have rejected Nietzsche’s contention that the pursuit of truth unwittingly undermines itself, although, to be sure, in his last days he was dismayed by the kind of reductive tact science had taken – a result of the “positivism” which today is known as “scientism” – and spelled out his concerns in his last, unfinished work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, published in 1936, two years before his death. But fundamentally Husserl believed that the aim of philosophy is to understand the universe and to arrive at truth, and he believed his phenomenological method was a means of doing that. Yes, an enormous amount of presuppositions and assumptions about reality has obscured our view, but we can clean our doors of perception through phenomenology and see clearly. Heidegger broke with Husserl because he believed he retained too much of the idealism of traditional philosophy, the very metaphysics that first Nietzsche and then Heidegger wanted to overcome.

Yet even though Heidegger rejected Husserl’s belief in phenomenology’s ability to arrive at truth, free of our assumptions about it, he still retained the belief in what he called “presence,” which, as we’ve seen, was the name he gave Being in his later work. This “presence,” however, was not uncovered by Husserl’s approach, but by a kind of “listening” that, in many ways, seems very close to a kind of mystical contemplation; Heidegger even uses the term Gelassenheit, which means a kind of “letting go,” and is associated with the thirteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart.[29] In a nutshell this means that if we let things “be” – that is, if we do not see them as there only for our use –  they will “speak” to us. This is also why so much of Heidegger’s later writing is focused on poetry. Poets, like the pre-Socratic philosophers, do not try to explain the world, but to respond to it. For Heidegger, the language of poetry comes closer to presenting – “presence-ing,” if I’m allowed a Heideggerian coinage – the world than that of philosophical analysis. Language, for Heidegger, is the house of Being, and poets are its builders.

The Absence of Presence

Derrida starts with Husserl too, but he goes further than Heidegger in denying even that phenomenological apostate’s positing of “presence.” There is no presence in the world, Derrida and his many epigone tell us, only an absence, or, at best, a différance that, according to him, makes all the difference. We can say that where the existentialists who followed Heidegger were concerned with the “inauthenticity” that comes with “forgetfulness of being,” the deconstructionists, and their postmodern fellow travellers, decided it was best to forget about Being altogether. It and its more poetic repackaging as “presence” is simply the latest illusory object to occupy the ever muddled minds of philosophers. The pursuit of Being and the letting-be of Presence is a hunt for a will o’ the wisp.

Derrida arrives at this conclusion through a consideration of language. If Heidegger believed that language is the house of Being, Derrida wants to show that this house simply does not exist, and that at best language is more like an itinerant wanderer, pitching a tent here and there and not staying in the same place for any length of time. Two central sources for this view are the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and an early essay by Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-Moral Sense.”

Saussure’s basic insight -if indeed it is one – is that language functions through difference, that is, the meaning of words is rooted not in the things they appear to name, but in the differences between words themselves. This is the source of Derrida’s différance. Things are the “signified” and words are their “signifiers,” but the meaning words appear to have does not depend on the qualities and characteristics of the signified but on the context of all other signifiers. Language is an arbitrary system of signs, and the words we use to describe the world could all be completely different and still serve this function as long as their users all agreed on the conventions of the system. We could all call blue “green” and vice versa, and as long as we all stuck to this, it would make no difference. This, of course, is a very different view of language from that of some mystical accounts of it, such as the Jewish tradition of Kabbala, which sees language as, not only the house of Being, but containing the very energies at work in the creation of the world – at least the Hebrew alphabet is so endowed. I also suspect that no true poet would consider the language that he uses to reveal the mystery of things as being nothing more than an arbitrary system of conventional signs. Yet Derrida via Saussure assures us it is.

Deconstructionism maintains that the necessity for context in order for signifiers to actually signify – for them to work – reveals a fundamental ambiguity in language. We know the same word can mean different things in different contexts, and how easy it is for us to misunderstand each other because of this. ( “That is not what I meant.” “Oh, really?”) This was the aspect of deconstructionism that spread like wild fire in the literary criticism departments: the idea that the author is the least person to know what his work is actually about, and that the job of the deconstructionist critic, was to find the loose thread – the aporia – in a text and pull it, so that its apparent meaning unravelled. Soon literary criticism professors were showing how creatively they could unravel any number of classics, mostly by the Dead White European Males who were coming under attack from other quarters as well. That none of these critics or their fellow travellers produced any classics of their own that their colleagues could unravel has perhaps understandably rarely been mentioned. As is the fact that the ambiguities of language were well known by many writers, poets, and philosophers before them.

The conventional view of language was also expressed in Nietzsche’s early mediation on the essential metaphoric character of words. In essence, a metaphor stands for something else; it is a pictorial way of describing the world, it presents an image, and hence, is closer to poetry than to prose although, to be sure, our prose is shot through with metaphors, most of which we do not recognise as such. And this, in fact, is Nietzsche’s argument. I say a pretty woman’s face “bloomed” and that a man “burned” with anger. An extremely literal minded person would ask to see the petals and ash. We do not even think of this because we are no longer surprised by the correspondence between the image and the beauty and anger to which we want to draw attention. These metaphors have become conventions, just as “water under the bridge” and “leaving no stone unturned” are. We no longer recognise their pictorial character.

This leads Nietzsche to conclude that words are not labels we stick on things, which, by doing so, allows us to “know” them and “explain” them. They are metaphors for the things that in truth – that word again – have no relation to the world other than a practical one, which is the case with all our other falsehoods.[30] Like the “facts” of science, words are necessary and useful falsifications, that aid in our “will to power” over the world. Language enables us to manipulate the world but it does not tell us anything about the world’s reality. Readers of Sartre’s novel Nausea will recall the queasiness that comes to his protagonist at the sight of the root of a tree or of a doorknob in his hand.[31] The words that he had hitherto used to understand the world have slipped off things, rather as if the adhesive fixing them in place had evaporated. The things are now free of our categories, the verbal grid we place over them to, as it were, keep them in place. Their sheer “isness” remains, their brute actuality, shorn of the comforting familiarity language places over them. “I said with the others: the ocean is green, that white speck up there is a seagull…then suddenly existence had unveiled itself.” We can experience something similar if we take a word and repeat it over and over. Soon what happens is that its meaning seems to dissolve and it becomes merely a sound in our mouths. This, in effect, is what Nietzsche is saying words “really” are.

Sartre’s protagonist knows the truth that words are “a referentially unreliable set of almost entirely arbitrary signs, made up by us in order to safeguard life and the species.”[32] Language, for Nietzsche at even this early stage, is a “mobile army of metaphors” and truths are “illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are,” rather like coins that have been worn down by use and now “matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”[33] Words, like facts, are for Nietzsche interpretations. There is no compliant objective reality that they refer to and by which we can gauge their accuracy. Hence the deconstructionist dictum that “there is only the text,” and that all texts are open to infinite interpretation. In other words, anything goes.

Postmodernity Ho!

This notion of a lack of presence or “essence” to things is at the heart of postmodernism, although, to be sure, postmodernists themselves would, by definition, deny that postmodernism had a heart, that is, an essence. Indeed, during my brief time as a graduate student in the early 1990s, no greater condemnation could be put upon one than to be called an “essentialist,” for reasons that will be forthcoming. It is this seemingly self-erasing character that makes postmodernism “definition resistant” in the way that some fabrics can be made “water repellent.” Given that more than one commentator has pointed out that defining postmodernism is “a minor academy industry in itself,” I do not propose to add to that work force here.[34] To begin with, modernism, the host onto which its “post” parasite has become firmly attached, is itself open to many interpretations and definitions.

In its simplest sense, by modernism we can understand the general shift from a religious to a scientific view of the world that took hold in the early seventeenth century, although it got its start with Copernicus a century or so earlier. The “cash value,” as William James would say, of this shift was that the human mind, for millennia held in check and stunted by the delusions and superstitions of religion, was now able to discover the truth about the world, through the unfettered activity of what we now know as science. Postmodernism, we can say, at least in this context – its protean character has many applications – got going when it became clear that the promissory notes that modernity had counted on were bouncing at the bank.[35] Of course many along the way knew they would: Goethe, Blake, and, as we’ve seen, Nietzsche were some of them. But the dud checks really started piling up sometime post WWII, when the notion that the “modern world” and the “grand narratives” informing it no longer seemed to provide the kind of security and finality they had promised they would.

Another part of the “postmodern condition” – the title of a book by Jean-François Lyotard that announced the end of “grand narratives” and put postmodernism on the philosophical map – is the idea that the simulation of reality has taken over from the original. We have become a “society of the spectacle, “ in which, as Jean Baudrillard tells us, the representation of reality has usurped that which it represents. Less and less do we experience reality unmediated by some form of representation – the ubiquitous smartphone is the prime example – with the bizarre result that the most popular form of entertainment as we head into the third decade of the twenty-first century is “reality television.” Here, reality, unadorned, unembellished, untouched by artifice and direct from your household to mine, holds captive millions of “viewers” who, in general, suffer from the forgetfulness of “real reality” that troubled Heidegger. There are even reality televisions shows about people who watch reality TV. And in our efforts to enjoy this ersatz reality, we enhance our representations of it with improvements such as “high definition” (HD) and “virtual reality” (VR), while actual everyday reality suffers neglect.[36]

Reality is Up For Grabs

So at the same time that university students in humanities departments have for decades been spoon fed a deconstructive and postmodern diet, on the home front “reality” has been subjected to the same kind of dismantling. Or perhaps in this case substitution is the proper term. From both, however, the fundamental “takeaway” is that reality is malleable. It is up for grabs. We create reality, either on a large scale cultural level, given that, for postmodernism and its fellow travellers, reality is relative to a given culture, that is, it is historically produced; or on the micro-cultural level of television shows. Either way, the notion of a stable, fixed, objective reality, accessible to human perception and amenable to being known, that is real and true for all cultures at all times, has become for many of us “so twentieth century.”

Indeed, for postmodernists and its various allies it has become an object of scorn. “Essentialism,” the notion that, contra deconstruction and postmodernism – and indeed Sartre and some existentialists – things, ourselves included, do have an essence, a nature, that is not historically or culturally produced, is seen as the source of a kind of “metaphysical imperialism,” an expression of the will to power, to dominate. It is an expression of the Eurocentric, “phallogocentric”, dead white male dominated “structure of discourse” that has oppressed all alternative discourses certainly since Plato, or so we are told.

Postmodernism and deconstructionism were here to dismantle this edifice and lead the west in a generally left direction. The irony here is that postmodernism and deconstructionism – both of which can be seen as informed with a kind of Marxism recidivus  – have their roots in “men of the right”, not the left.[37] Neither Nietzsche or Heidegger were in any way leftists, although, as Allan Bloom pointed out, that is exactly the sea-change – or distortion –  they underwent when deconstructionism and postmodernism took over American campuses, with some help from the Frankfurt School.[38] Derrida was a Marxist, as were others to emerge from “May ’68,” the “almost revolution” that brought Paris to a standstill at the height of that turbulent decade. The slogans that inspired that eruption, “Power to the Imagination,” “Take Your Desires For Reality,” would soon find themselves on the syllabi of literature and philosophy classes a decade or so later.[39] But what the men of ’68, who became the “tenured radicals” of the 70s and 80s, did not know was that their deconstruction of what they saw as an oppressive reality would not lead to the “progressive” society that were aiming at, but to something quite the opposite.

Because if reality is up for grabs, there is no telling who will grab it.

The Party’s Over

The initial effect of this dismantling of truth and reality was a sense of liberation. It was party time in philosophy and literary criticism departments and the students were soon taking it to the streets. Scientists may have shaken their heads – if they were at all aware of it – but they themselves had gone through something similar concerning, to be honest, a more fundamental level of things, with the “quantum revolution” of the early twentieth century. Even so, in the 1970s and 80s, science had embraced its own chaos, in the form of “chaos theory” and then “complexity,” while Paul Feyerabend’s “anarchic” form of science rivalled some of Derrida’s less comprehensible productions for sheer eccentricity. But the shenanigans of elementary particles did not seem to impinge on the social and political world in the way that the radical ideas emerging from humanities departments did.

Yet once the initial celebrations had quieted and the deconstructive dust had settled, alert minds noticed something. The dismantling had cleared a great space and the bricks of what had once occupied it were scattered about, some in neat stacks, some in random piles. That work was done. But nothing seemed to be going up in its place. Some argued that this was as it should be; the “grand narratives” were gone, and it was the time for the more local stories to be heard. But many of these started talking over each other, interrupting each other, arguing or, as often as not, shouting each other down. The process of liberation seemed to have turned to one of disintegration as the hitherto oppressed narratives now competed with each other for attention and dominance. The deconstruction, we could say, was deconstructing the deconstructors.

This should not have been surprising. Neither deconstructionism or postmodernism, in whatever form they take, possess anything positive – in the general sense of the word, not that of “positivism.” They are in essence – unavoidable, I’m afraid – content-less. Postmodernism merely means whatever comes after modernism. And you can’t deconstruct anything from scratch. To take something apart it first has to be built.

At the same time as the postmodern party was turning into a somewhat disheartening morning after, an ambience of general distrust had taken hold of the popular mind. A “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur had called it, had settled in, a cynicism that, in its desire not to be taken in, subjected everything to doubt. Yet the popular mind had also acquiesced in a kind of discontented fatalism, convinced that the individual is at the mercy of forces well beyond his control, in the world and in himself, something that both postmodernism and deconstructionism had repeatedly repeated. The individual as such no longer existed; he was merely an empty space in which vague but omnipotent “social forces” operated. Ironically, this suspicion of once trusted sources was allied with a mind so open to a variety of “conspiracy theories” that it was ready to swallow practically any “alternative” account, as long as it contradicted whatever the “official” one was.

Trickle Down Metaphysics

It seemed that, by the second decade of the twentieth century, the uncanniest of guests that Nietzsche saw was on his way, had indeed arrived, perhaps a little ahead of schedule; but after all, we live in accelerated times. The nihilism of the rarefied metaphysical heights of Nietzsche’s mountain top seemed to have flowed down to the lowlands of everyday life, in a process that I call “trickle down metaphysics.”[40] It passed from Nietzsche, who, writing for the day after tomorrow, warned it was on its way, to Heidegger who took it as the starting point of his “deconstruction of the history of ontology.” This project was happily absorbed and eagerly carried on by the deconstructionists and postmodernists, who preached it to students who swallowed it like mother’s milk and who widened the target to include practically all of western culture. Thus began what Jacques Barzun called “the Great Undoing,” the devaluing of the western intellectual and cultural tradition because “Western Civ Has Got to Go.”[41] At the same time, through some strange process of osmosis facilitated by that mysterious entity the Zeitgeist, practically the same ideas were becoming de rigueur in popular culture and consciousness, until reality had become so attenuated that we have to look for it now on television. The representation has taken over from the represented. The simulation has replaced the original.

Enter Trump – Finally

And what does Trump have to do with all this, you ask? Patient reader, I will tell you. He is the simulacra that has replaced the reality, one of the New New Men who make real political use of the idea that reality is up for grabs.[42] He has stepped into the space emptied by deconstructionists and postmodernists and made the transition from reality TV to the Real Thing. He has crossed the ontological checkpoint between false and true while occupying both sides simultaneously. I am sure he has never heard of postmodernism, deconstructionism, nihilism, Nietzsche, Heidegger or anyone else I’ve mentioned. But he embraces the notion that what we call truth is an interpretation, a falsehood designed to help us manipulate the world to our best advantage, and he has run with it.

He was well primed for the job. First there is his apprenticeship as a reality TV star on, aptly enough, a program called The Apprentice, in which he hired and fired and wore the impressive overcoat, as he does today. But even before this, he had absorbed a philosophy of life that had at its basis the belief that reality is what we make it. As I point out in my book Dark Star Rising: Magic and Power in the Age of Trump, Trump’s own apprenticeship was conducted under the tutelage of America’s most positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whose sermons Trump attended since childhood and whose book, The Power of Positive Thinking, taught Trump the secret of success. This can be summed up in a dictum that one suspects Trump repeats like a mantra: “Facts don’t matter. Attitudes are more important than facts.”[43] And the fundamental axiom of Peale’s “positive thinking” is one it shares with any number of New Thought philosophies that guarantee their devotees mastery of life: we create reality.

It is doubtful that Nietzsche would have appreciated the connection – he has already been misappropriated many times – but what we have here, I think, is a vulgarised expression of his insight into the “false” or at least interpretive character of facts. As I’ve pointed out, this had been a mainstay of the philosophers who followed Nietzsche’s lead, but their influence was mainly limited to the academic or cultural world, and had little effect on the man or woman in the street. But with the advent of “post-truth” and “alternative facts,” the notion that facts are really interpretations of reality that enable us to manipulate it to our best advantage, has taken centre stage.

Let me say again that Trump mostly likely never heard of Nietzsche and the metaphysics that troubled him on his mountain top, nor of the philosophical gullies and crevices through which it trickled down to reach our TV sets and Twitter feeds today. But it seems that he has unwittingly but cannily taken advantage of the epistemological vacuum that has come in postmodernism’s and deconstructionism’s wake. And so far, nothing has stopped his creative use of truth and reality, because truth and reality have been denuded of any power to do so, courtesy of their being made redundant.

I should also mention that in Dark Star Rising I also show how there is reason to believe that Trump supporters with a taste for a punked-up form of “positive thinking,” what is known as “chaos magick”, used the internet itself in order to help him into office, enabling the representation of reality to become the genuine article. I cannot tell that story here – readers can find it in the book – but like “positive thinking” and postmodernism, the fundamental belief at the heart of chaos magic is that reality is malleable[44]. It is up for grabs. I also suggest in the book that, although he most likely never heard of chaos magick, Trump seems to have a natural affinity for it. If nothing else, he certain enjoys creating chaos.

And Now?

So where do we go from here? For one thing we can go back to Nietzsche and look at the strategy he proposed to help his readers get past the wasteland of nihilism.[45] He saw it coming. We are in it. Remember that he wrote for the day after tomorrow, which, I suggest, means us. He knew that it would be no picnic and that it might take centuries for the fallout from the death of God – or any other external source of meaning and purpose – to settle and allow any kind of creative response to arise. We need not accept his schedule and there is no time like the present. And while the death of God may not trouble us in the same way that it did an earlier generation – we are content to announce his probable non-existence on bus hoardings – the spiritual vacuum it created remains.[46]

Yet we too can be “untimely men” and recognise that the fact that a popular form of nihilism informs our culture means that those of us who are aware of this are already to some degree beyond it, in the sense that a person who knows he is ill has a better chance of getting better than one who doesn’t. And in fact there is a whole body of work aimed at doing precisely this, coming from a variety of sources. I have written about some of it in my books.[47] So the situation may not be as bad as it sounds. Nietzsche was not the only one who sought a “revaluation of values.” Others did too. When Nietzsche’s madman announced the death of God, he soon realised that he had come too early. Although the deed was done, there were few who were ready to appreciate what it truly meant. We don’t need a madman in a marketplace announcing the death of nihilism. But it could be that its demise is on its way and in some quarters has already taken place. It may only be a matter of time before word of it gets around.

London August 2020

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche The Will to Power translated by Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] An excellent account of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and her influence on Nietzsche’s posthumous career can be found in H.F. Peters Zarathustra’s Sister (New York: Marcus Wiener Publishing, 1985).

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche Ecce Homo (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1979) p. 33.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1977) p. 114.

[6] Nietzsche 1967 p.3.

[7] Nietzsche 1977 p. 114.

[8] Übermensch in German, often mistranslated as “superman.”

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra  translated by R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1969) p. 47.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) p. 182.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jacques Barzun From Dawn to Decadence (New York: Harper Collins, 2000) p. 630.

[13] Gary Lachman The Return of Holy Russia (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2020) p. 242.

[14] Nietzsche 1967 pp3-4.

[15] Ibid. p. 272.

[16] Henri Bergson Mind-Energy (London: The Macmillan Company, 1920) pp. 47.

[17] Ibid.

[18] George Steiner Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) p. 83.

[19] Michael Tanner Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) p. 5

[20] We may be allowed to ask if the fact that Nietzsche’s sister was an enthusiastic supporter of National Socialism and that her version of The Will to Power was the one promoted by Nazi hacks has any relation to the fact that Heidegger was an early Nazi enthusiast as well, although he lost his taste for National Socialism fairly quickly, becoming a philosophical persona non grata for Hitlerites by early 1934.

[21] Martin Heidegger The Question Concerning Technology  translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper Perennial, 1977) pp.53-112.

[22] I should point out that Nietzsche took Being as another of the falsifications we imposed on reality, which for him is in a state of constant becoming, a Heraclitean flux rather than a Parmendian stasis. It is, we can say, the fundamental error that makes life liveable, “the supreme will to power.”.Nietzsche 1967 p. 330

[23] I should add that there is good reason to believe that both created difficulties for their readers as a kind of “teaching strategy.”

[24] See Colin Wilson’s long essay “Anti-Sartre” in Below the Iceberg (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1998).

[25] See, for example Martin Heidegger Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

[26] Martin Heidegger Being and Time translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) p. 44.

[27] Martin Heidegger Basic Writings translated by David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) p. 370.

[28] Gottfried Benn Prose Essays Poems various translators (New York: Continuum, 1987) pp. 17-25. Heidegger was a reader of Benn’s poetry; like Heidegger, Benn was an early enthusiast for National Socialism, but again like Heidegger, by 1934 he had changed his mind.

[29] Gary Lachman The Secret Teachers of the Western World (New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2015) p. 223. Meister Eckhart’s focus on what he called Istigkeit, “is-ness” is also very close to Heidegger’s “remembering of Being.” Oddly enough, Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception, his account of his experience under the influence of the drug mescaline,  speaks of Istigkeit when trying to communicate the impact of the sheer “isness” of everything he saw. This same “isness” was felt by Sartre, during his own mescaline experience, as threatening. Huxley found it beatific. We can say that in this instance, Huxley was more Heideggerian than Sartre.

[30] J.P. Stern Nietzsche (London: Fontana, 1978) p. 136.

[31] Jean-Paul Sartre Nausea translated by Robert Baldick (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1975) p. 13. I should point out that the “crisis of language” expressed here had already been experienced by the Austrian poet Hugo Von Hofmannsthal and others in fin-de-siècle Vienna. See Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Letter” in The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings translated by Joel Rotenberg (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).

[32] Stern. p. 133.

[33] Friedrich Nietzsche “On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-moral Sense” translated by Walter Kaufmann in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin Books, 1977) p. 46-47.

[34] Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins What Nietzsche Really Said (New York: Schocken Books, 2000) p. 42.

[35] By all accounts postmodernism started as a school of architecture. See Robert Venturi, Denise Scot Brown, Steven Izenour Learning From Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972). The idea was to forget the sleek lines and flat, unornamented surfaces of the Bauhaus modernist style – which was itself a reaction against the over ornamentation of earlier, monumental building – and to take inspiration in the kitschy, over the top, gaudy jumble of styles found in Las Vegas and other “road side attractions” such as 1950s diners. Haughty, high modernism was out, and a more accessible “popular” taste was in.

[36] We should also note that “representation” in the sense of particular groups being equally “represented” in media is also a central motivation. The raison d’être of many programs is precisely that, with plot, narrative and other essentials seemingly present as a vehicle for this. We should also not ignore the narcissism that is flattered by reality television making “you” the star of the show. Celebrities are no different from “us” and “we” should get our fair share of the attention and praise they receive.

[37] In the sense that for Marx, “truths” and “values” were not absolute or objective, but a product of the class war and used by the bourgeoise to keep the workers in place.

[38] Allan Bloom The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). How postmodern Nietzsche really is, is debatable. See Solomon and Higgins pp. 41-43; also Wilson 1998 p. 116. The point made in both is that deconstructionism and postmodernism lack the creative side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He wanted to “revaluate all values.” Deconstructionism and postmodernism deny the reality of values.

[39] Gary Lachman Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (New York: Disinformation Co.) p. 46 on how this related to the general “occult revival” of that decade.

[40] Gary Lachman Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2018) pp. xv-xvi.

[41] Barzun 2000.

[42] Another is Vladimir Putin. See Gary Lachman Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2018) pp. 138-148.

[43] Norman Vincent Peale The Power of Positive Thinking (London: Vermillion, 1990) p. 14. The quotation is actually from the psychiatrist Karl Menninger.

[44] Lachman 2018 pp. 47-49.

[45] And we must remember we are under no obligation to accept his view of things. I personally do not believe that the universe and its inhabitants, ourselves especially, are meaningless. But I understand why Nietzsche did.

[46] https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/successful-campaigns/atheist-bus-campaign/

[47] Gary Lachman Lost Knowledge of the Imagination (Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books, 2017) and Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016).

Beyond the Robot Part 2, H. P. Lovecraft, Precognition, and Holy Russia.

I’ll be giving the second part of my talk on Colin Wilson online on 30 August from 7:00 – 9:00 pm UK time. Here’s the link to register. The talk is based on my book Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. I gave the first part back in February, just before coronamania hit town. You can find that here. In the first talk, I focused on Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, and his roots in existentialism. Part 2 will follow on from that to Wilson’s ‘comeback’ book, The Occult which established him as one of the leading thinkers in the burgeoning consciousness and paranormal world of the 1970s. I will look at The Occult and the other books in Wilson’s “Occult trilogy,” Mysteries and Beyond the Occult.

In other news, my article “The Horror at Clinton Street: H. P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” is in the September 2020 issue of Fortean Times, #396, which should be available at a Temple to Dagon near you. I came to Lovecraft after cutting my Weird Tales teeth on Robert E. Howard’s testosterone injected tales of Conan the Barbarian, in the Lancer paperback editions of the mid 1960s, with their fantastic Frank Frazetta covers, full of swords, sorcery, rippling muscle and buxom wenches. Lovecraft was an eccentric, neurotic man of genius who transmuted his loathing of the modern world into tales of cosmic horror that at their best, produce a sense of awe. Sadly, his time in Brooklyn in the early 1920s, was not a picnic, and his dislike of people of colour or of less than colonial American descent, reached a paroxysm that, in a lesser individual, could have erupted into violence. In Lovecraft’s case, it produced one of his lesser tales, which nevertheless, put the Red Hook area of Brooklyn firmly on the Lovecraftian map…

 

New Dawn magazine, which hails from down under – Melbourne, Australia, to be exact – has been reprinting some of my older articles, as well as some new ones. In recent months I contributed articles on H. G. Wells and the Open Conspiracy(May-June 2020 #180) and the little read – at least in the English speaking world – German writer Ernst Junger (Special Issue Vol. 14 #3). In their Special Issue Vol. 13 # 6, I contributed my essay “Mystical Experience and the Evolution of Consciousness, and in the July-August 2020 issue has an early article about precognitive dreams and synchronicity, “Destiny Calling.” This was originally published back in 1997 in Quest magazine and has not been available until now. I mention in a note that it can serve as an introduction to my next book, Time and the Dreaming Mind, which will be published by Floris Books sometime in 2021, and which deals at greater length with the kinds of experiences I write about in the article. In the current Special Issue. Vol 14 #4, you can find my article on the Hermetic Revolution of the Renaissance, which originally appeared in Gnosis magazine in 1996, and laid the groundwork for my book The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus.

I’ve been doing quite a few interviews for The Return Of Holy Russia. Here are links to some that have appeared since my last post.

Here I speak with Mark Jeftovic at Spokentome about A Secret History of Consciousnessand The Caretakers of the Cosmos, two of my books that he has released in spoken word editions. If I remember correctly, we cover a lot of ground…

Here I chat with Piers Kaniuka of Resistance Recoveryabout my work in general.

This time it’s about T.C. Lethbridge, pendulums and the counter culture at the Bureau of Lost Culture.

At Mind Matters it’s all things a la Russe.

Here I talk about the “Russian soul” with a real Russian

It’s The Caretakers of the Cosmos at Zeitgeist.

And at Legalize Freedom it’s Holy Russia again.

A Midsummer Roundup

Here are some interviews and reviews from recent months.

I was glad to see in a review of Dark Star Rising that I avoid “all that cheap and vapid capitalising on personal celebrity status, invariably zeroing in on low hanging fruit of negligible import, which is all too common in the field of popular entertainment and image marketing.” It’s true, you know.

Here’s a conversation I had with Christina Harrington of Treadwell’s Bookshop here in London about my new book The Return of Holy Russia.

At Thoth Hermes.com I have officially been declared a “living philosopher,” no mean feat, especially if you are trying to make a living out of philosophy.

Here’s another conversation a la Russe, with Greg Carlwood at The Higherside Chats.

Here’s a chat with Luke Dodson who, among other things, is the great grandson of J.B. Priestely, whom I’ve been writing about recently in my current work in progress, a book about precognitive dreams. Priestley was a “time-haunted man,” as evidenced by his still very readable and revelatory book Man and Time.

Here’s a review of The Return of Holy Russia by Stephen Greenleaf.

And if you are an absolute glutton for all things Russian, here’s another conversation about Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky,and what Tsar Vladimir is up to these days.

Spasibo!

Holy Russia, Aeon Bytes, and Ends of Days

Here’s short notice of two live interviews about my new book The Return of Holy Russia.

Tonight, 15 May, at 9:00 PM UK time, I’ll be speaking with Michael Deacon about the book on his You Tube program End of Days

And tomorrow, 16 May, at 1:00 PM Central time, I’ll be speaking with Miguel Connor at Aeon Bytes about the book too.

Also, here’s a link to an interview I did about the book with Jeffrey Mishlove at the New Thinking Allowed.

Hoping you all are safe and well in these unusual times.

 

 

Q&A, Observing the Observer, and Some Lost Knowledge

On May 8th – White Lotus Day for Madame Blavatsky fans – I’ll be doing a free online Q&A session hosted by Kensington Central Library, from 6:30 to 7:30 PM, GMT. You can ask about my work, or practically anything, although I can’t guarantee I’ll have the answers.

In the meantime, here’s a link to my latest article for the Secular Heretic. It’s called “The Observer Observed” and looks at the effect of Galileo’s bifurcation of reality into two halves, the “objective” world, which science considers the only “real” one, and our “subjective” world of value and meaning which, since it can’t be measured, is considered somehow less real. Not to fear, Goethe comes to rescue – but I’ll leave you to discover exactly how…

And here’s a last minute reminder that tomorrow, April 25, I’ll be giving the second talk in my three part series for the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies. This talk and the next (on May 9th) will look at my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. The talk starts at 10:00 AM PST – 6:00 GMT – and continues until 11:30. If you’ve polished all the silver and are considering possibly shaving your cat, you might enjoy some time exploring the inner world which is always open to us, lockdown or not.

Lost Knowledge with Jung the Mystic – and a Dark Star

I’ll be speaking about my books Jung the Mystic and Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at three Saturday Salons hosted by the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies. (Odd, just as I wrote “Salome,” the announcer on BBC Radio 3 – their classical station – commented on Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera… That’s synchronicity for you.) The dates are April 11 and 25, and May 9. The talks are on Saturday mornings, 10:00 AM PST, which is 6:00 PM GMT. The Salome Institute is offering a 3 for 2 deal. If you’re tired of looking at cat videos, this might be a surprising change.

I’m also talking about my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump at an online event hosted by the Science and Medical Network. This starts at 7:30 PM GMT on 6 April.

I hope everyone is staying safe. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been looking over my dream journals of several years – going back to the late 1980s and early 90s – and in a dream from 1998, I am told to “Just stay home. There’s no reason to go out. Just stay home, where it’s safe.” Here’s the link. I don’t know if this counts as a precognitive dream – that’s the focus of my next book – but it is certainly quite a coincidence.

 

Colin Wilson: Beyond the Robot, A Talk for the Theosophical Society

Here’s a link to a video of a talk I gave on 29 February 2020 on Colin Wilson’s life and ideas for the Theosophical Society here in London. As often happens with my talks, Part 1 ran over the original hour scheduled, so it was agreed that I would return later this year to give Part 2. The first part deals with Wilson’s early career, with The Outsider and the “new existentialism” he tried to establish through the books of the “Outsider Cycle.” Part 2 will deal with Wilson’s ideas about the occult, the paranormal and mystical experience. As readers of Wilson know, all of his work is centered around the question of the evolution of consciousness.

As you may notice, toward the beginning of the video I mention an odd synchronicity I had on the way to the talk. En route I stopped at a local market. While in the checkout queue, I casually looked at the magazine rack. There were a stack of Vogue magazines with most of the cover of the top one obscured by the magazines in the lower rack. But what was visible were the words “The Outsider.” As it turned out, this was the title of an article about a current pop singer and had nothing to do with Wilson. But as I was on my way to talk about The Outsider, I took it as a sign. It was the kind of synchronicity that Wilson himself would have loved, and it will feature in the book about precognitive dreams and synchronicity that I am about to start. It’s tentative title is Time and the Dreaming Mind.

Here’s a link to my tweet about this.

The Year Ahead: 2020 in View

Work, holidays, and other unavoidable hurdles in life – and there have been some tough ones – have kept me from keeping up this blog. For one thing, 2019 had me travelling around the globe, from Bogota to Sydney and Melbourne, New York to California’s Big Sur coast – where I spent at week at a fantastic symposium at the Esalen Institute – with pit stops in Montreal, Munich, Berlin, Rome, Turin, Milan and even China along the way. Whew indeed. Now I’m stationary, at least for the moment, and able to look at what lies ahead. Some travel, but also some appearances closer to home.

On 20 February I’ll be at the Kensington Central Library again, this time talking about my book Jung The Mystic. Yes, I know, for some it should be Jung The Mistake, but not for me. As I grown older and imperceptibly wiser – hmm – I see that the sage of Kunsnacht has more and more to say to me. And to you.

On 29 February I’ll be talking about my book Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson at the Theosophical Society in England headquarters in London. To those who don’t know, Colin was and remains a central influence on my work. I’m happy to have a chance to speak about his ideas and the importance they hold for us today. He was and remains well ahead of his time. And ours.

On 7 March I’ll be speaking about Aleister Crowley, that old beast, at the Pagan Phoenix Conference in Penstowe. From what I gather from the flyer, it sounds like it should be a jolly good time.

On 16 March I’ll be talking about my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump for the Science and Medical Network in Hampstead, London. You may have had your fill of Trump – I’d be surprised if you hadn’t – but if you want to get an idea about occultism in politics today and the effects of what I call “trickle down metaphysics,” this is the place to be.

On 18 April I’m scheduled to be interviewed by Kasper Obstrup at the Avisen Live 2020 Festival outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. Travel again, but only a short hop to “the continent.” Kasper is a Danish writer with a fascination with “radical culture,” which means the Beats and other denizens of the outre fringe. I suspect I will be in good company.

On July 3 I’ll be talking about “Colin Wilson’s Double Brain,” relating Wilson’s insights into split-brain psychology to recent developments in that area at the Third International Colin Wilson Conference, held in Nottingham, 3-5 July.

I’m also on the bill for the Ozora Festival, which will be held in Ozora, Hungary, outside Budapest, a psychedelic trance event held from 20-26 July. Details to follow. I’ll be re-reading Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue, on the way.

In other news, there’s an interview with me and an excerpt from my new book, The Return of Holy Russia, in the latest edition of New Dawn magazine. Here’s the tweet.

I also have an interview in a new book about David Bowie, of all people. Masks: Bowie and Artists of Artifice explores the relationship between identity and creativity. I’m included along with John Gray, Slavoj Žižek and other fascinating, talented individuals.

Last, but surely not least, some nepotism. Here’s a link to my son, Max’s, You Tube Channel. Max is a violinist and filmmaker who has one proud ex rock ‘n roller for a dad. Please listen and subscribe.

There’s your mission. You have no choice but to accept it.

 

On the Road Again: Talks in October and November in New York, Montreal, Berlin, and London

Here’s a list of some talks I’ll be giving in North America and Europe in October and November.

October 4-6: I’ll be at the Omega Studios in Rhinebeck, NY, along with Dean Radin, Alex and Allyson Grey, and Regina Meredith for a weekend of Real Magic. Really. Some seats are still available.

October 11-13: I’ll be lighting up at the Black Flame Esoteric Conference in Montreal, Canada, with an impressive array of other speakers, including Helene Arts, Richard Kaczynski, and Shani Oates. Come shine in the darkness.

October 15: I will be talking about my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump at the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, in NYC’s Greenwich Village. Room 106, 244 Greene Street [between Washington and Waverly Place]

October 16: I will be talking about my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in some other old stomping grounds, NYC’s East Village.

October 24: I will be talking about my book The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters at Highgate Cemetery in North London as part of the London Month of the Dead festivities. Come and discover why and how writers have been cashing in their chips throughout the centuries.

October 31-November 3: I will be giving the keynote talk at the Occulture Conference in Berlin, Germany. Sicher sehr esoterisch…

November 25: I’ll be talking about Esoteric London as part of the London History Festival at Kensington Central Library. Find out what John Dee, Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky and other esoteric characters did in the Big Smoke.

November 30: I’ll be joining Richard Tarnas, Mark Vernon, David Lorimer and other speakers for a day exploring ideas about the evolution of consciousness at Colet House, where Ouspensky held his meetings in the 1930s. Come to Evolving Consciousness: Spiritual Experience in a Secular Age.

Taking Care of the Cosmos: A Talk for the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, Melbourne, August 4 2019

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, in Melbourne, during my recent lecture tour down under. It’s based on my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos.

Taking Care of the Cosmos

A Talk for Warranwood Steiner Centre, Melbourne, August 4, 2019

I’ve been asked to give a talk about my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. Let me say that I am quite pleased about this for a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason that neither I nor my publisher can fathom, it is one of my books that hasn’t received as much attention as some of my others – and let me assure you that the amount of attention the others have received is by no means enormous. Still, this book seems not to have generated as much discussion as some of my other books have, however modest that may be. The other reason I am happy to have a chance to talk about it, is that it is something of a more personal work of mine. Of course, every piece of writing a writer produces is in some way personal. He or she is behind it, however detached or objective their stance toward their subject may be. That they choose to write about that subject in that way tells us something about them, if only a little. But this book is more directly personal than that. It is a kind of personal statement, a declaration of how I see things, although, to be sure, I draw on a considerable array of thinkers, writers, and sages – as I do in all my books – in order to make my point and support my argument.

As I say in the book, the title, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, is rather bold and, as some friends pointed out while I was writing it, not exactly clear. Some thought it made the book sound like a work of science fiction. And for some readers, not partial to the message of the book, fiction is perhaps the  most accurate description of its contents. But the title came to me while I was working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. This was a history of the influence on western consciousness of the mythological founder of magic, philosophy, and the Hermetic tradition, thrice greatest Hermes. Although for centuries, Hermes Trismegistus was thought to be a real person, who had lived before the Flood, and whose philosophy had influenced as prestigious individuals as Moses, Plato, and even Jesus Christ, modern scholarship accepts that he was a product of the syncretism associated with the Alexandrian Age, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes circa AD 200, and who served as figure of veneration and authority for the anonymous authors of the mystical and magical texts that have come down to us as the Corpus Hermeticum.

The Corpus Hermeticum had an enormous influence on western thought, and perhaps its most powerful impact was on the Renaissance. We can even say that in many ways it was responsible for the Renaissance itself. A story that the historian Frances Yates tells gives us an idea of just how important a figure Hermes Trismegistus was considered at the time. In 1463, Cosimo de’ Medici, the great Florentine power broker, asked his scribe, Marsilio Ficino, whom Cosimo had just made head of the newly revived Platonic Academy, to translate some texts by Plato from Greek to Latin that had recently come into his possession. But just as Marsilio was about to get to work, Cosimo told him to wait. Some other texts had come into his hand, and Plato would have to be put on the back burner. What was important enough to shove Plato into the backseat? The Corpus Hermeticum. So you can see that Hermes was important indeed, if the father of western philosophy had to be put on hold in deference to him.

In the Asclepius, one of the books making up the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures. I should point out that by “man” Hermes meant “human being” – there was much less confusion about the use of the word “man,” which did not mean “male,” back then. We are creatures of the natural world, Hermes tells Asclepius, of the body and the senses, and as such are subject to all the laws and limitations that come with “living in the material world,” as the title of an old song has it. But we are also inhabitants of another world, that of the mind, the spirit, the soul, or, as we would say today – or at least I do – consciousness. And this world, in essence, is free of the limitations of our other nature. As bodies we occupy a particular space and time. But as the poet William Blake, himself a student of the Hermetic tradition, tells us, “one thought fills immensity.”

The Hermetic creation myth explains how this came about. Briefly, after creating the universe, Nous, or the Universal Mind, decided to create a being like himself so that he could share his creation with him. So he created humanity. I should mention that the idea that we are created in the image of the Universal Mind suggested to many churchmen during the Renaissance that the Hermetic teachings presaged and paralleled the teachings of Christianity, as in that tradition, human beings are also made in the image of their creator. There are other parallels and similarities between Hermeticism and Christianity, and because of this during the Renaissance many enlightened figures within the church argued that the Hermetic teachings should be made part of Christian doctrine. Sadly, they weren’t, and one can only wonder what the history of the church would have been like if they had been.

What happened when man beheld the world that Nous had made? He feel in love with it. And, enamoured of its beauty, he reached down from the heavenly heights in order to embrace it. But his love proved too powerful, as did that of the world for Man – in the Hermetic myth as in many others, the world, Earth, nature, is a woman – and when the two embraced, man lost his awareness of his spiritual origin, or at least his fascination with the world eclipsed this for a while. But just as man took on aspects of the earthly, so too did the world take on aspects of the spiritual. As in all true relationships, they shared parts of themselves with each other. The earth and the whole cosmos absorbed some of man’s celestial nature – we remember he was made in the image of the Universal Mind, his creator – while man absorbed some of the earth’s natural character. The two have been mixed up like this ever since.

Now, like all myths, there is no way to prove that anything like this happened, and of course modern science and our rational minds tell us it is just a story. But the work of myths isn’t to prove something, but to come up with what Plato called a “likely story” to account for things. And what this particular myth accounts for is the fact that, however it came about and whatever the truth about it may be, we nevertheless experience ourselves as creatures of two natures, whether we immediately recognize that we do or not. We are without doubt natural creatures, of flesh and blood, who exist within time and space and who are subject to the same limitations and appetites of other animals. There’s little doubt about that and, as I will show further on, we’ve had more than a few centuries during which some of the best minds of the west have been hammering this message home to us. But we are also creatures of a different sort. However much contemporary science denies it, we have an immaterial, non-physical nature, that is not subject to time and space in the same way as our bodies are. Evidence for this is the consciousness that each of us is engaged with now, listening to this talk – unless, as is often the case, my words are tedious enough to send you to sleep – it’s been known to happen. Each one of us participates in the Universal Mind and so we each are the kind of “dual natured” creature that Hermes Trismegistus tells us we are.

Now, of course, Hermeticism isn’t the only tradition making this claim. We can find it in other spiritual traditions, and I draw on some of them in the book. But it does have an interesting answer to the question why we have two natures. The Gnostics, a sect of early Christians who were contemporaries of the Hermetics, also believed that humanity had “fallen” from a spiritual state and had become “trapped” in the material world. Their response to this was that we needed to escape from this false world and return to the true one. And I might point out that in many ways our time is a very Gnostic one, with our fascination with conspiracy theories and with phenomena such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” creating a sense that reality isn’t as reliable as it used to be. As I write in a book about the postmodern politics of our time, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, it is up for grabs. As the Hermetics did, the Gnostics believed we all still retained a spark of our divine origin, and they sought to awaken this, through inducing ecstatic states in order to achieve what they called gnosis and what the Hermetics, who engaged in similar practices, saw as a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”

But while the Gnostics wanted to escape from the world, the Hermetics sought something different. They wanted to remember their purpose, their mission on the earth. When Asclepius asks Hermes why humans have two natures, Hermes explains that we do so that we can “raise our sight to heaven while we take care of the earth,” and so that we can “love those things that are below us” while we are “beloved by the things above.” Humans, it seems, are a kind of meeting ground of two worlds, something that the seventeenth century mathematician and religious thinker Blaise Pascal remarked on when he said that mankind existed in between the infinitely small and the infinitely large, between the microscopic world of the atoms, and the colossal expanse of the galaxies. But there is more to us that this. We have a body, Hermes tells Asclepius, so that we can “take care of creation.” We have a “corporeal dwelling place” and our two natures are mixed into one, so that we can “wonder at and adore the celestial, while taking care of and managing the things on earth.”

What this suggests is that we find ourselves here, not because of a “fall” from grace, as in the Judeo-Christian religion, or because of the machinations of an evil idiot god, as in the Gnostic tradition, but because we have a particular mission to accomplish, a responsibility to fulfil. In other words, we are here for a reason. We struggle against the limitations of the body and the material world, not in order to escape them, or as punishment for some “original sin,” but in order to embrace the obligations that come with being “caretakers of the cosmos.”

 

Now, needless to say, this is a far cry from how we see ourselves and have been taught to see ourselves by modern science and much of modern culture. We can say that the process through which human beings lost any sense of themselves as having a reason for existing, let alone a particular responsibility in doing so, goes back a few centuries, although, to be sure, throughout history there have always been voices announcing the futility of existence, and of our own in particular. All is vanity, Ecclesiastes tells us, and Sophocles, the great Greek dramatist, tells us it is best to die young or not to be born at all. We can say  our current assessment of ourselves as not particularly significant inhabitants of a not particularly significant world began when Copernicus announced that the sun did not revolve around the earth. We were not, it turned out, at the centre of things. Oddly enough, Copernicus himself was a student of the Hermetic philosophy, as were other makers of the modern scientific worldview, such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, something I can only mention here. (Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity, and gravity itself is an “occult,” that is, unseen power.) This particular ball continued to roll and by the nineteenth century it had picked up considerable speed and was pretty much unstoppable. Darwin showed us that we were no different from the other animals. Marx showed us that the real motor of human history was economics, that is, our earthly, material reality. Nietzsche showed that power was behind human motivation, although he did have an idea of human greatness in his notion of the “superman,” again, something I can only mention. Freud said sex was behind everything, and thoroughly rejected any higher appetites.

And while this was going on, in a variety of ways, modern science was busy at work reducing human beings to machines, stimulus response robots, devoid of free will and pushed and pulled solely by influences coming from the environment. Any notion of a nature other than our physical, material one was by this time utterly abandoned, cast into the rubbish bin of ideas, along with everything else having to do with religion, spirit, or mind.

This view of our existence was summed up with scientific rigour by the French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who argued that chance and chance alone produced not only humanity but the world it finds itself in. There is no reason behind anything. As Stephen Hawking said in a very popular book a few years ago, the universe “just happened,” and there was no need for any God or Universal Mind to bring it or us about. As another physicist, Steve Weinberg, remarked, the more we understand the universe, the more it seems pointless. And although existentialism and astrophysics are, no pun intended, worlds apart, they seem to share a common theme. As Jean Paul Sartre, the most famous existential philosopher, remarked, it is “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die.”  Monod, Hawking, and Weinberg say essentially the same thing.

This story is well known and of course there have been many who have rejected it and argued against it. I draw on quite a few of them in my book. But what is new and what prompted me to write my book, is that this tradition of encouraging what the British writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called the “fallacy of insignificance” regarding human existence has in recent times found a very vocal if paradoxical fellow traveller.

 

One of the curious ironies of the rise of modern science and technology is that while it argues that human life and the universe itself is insignificant, purposeless, and meaningless, it has also placed into this insignificant creature’s hands an enormous power. The science that tells us that we are meaningless accidents in an accidental universe has also made us masters of the world. By treating nature as mere stuff that we can control – voiding it of any spiritual character – we have gained a fantastic power over it. And it is precisely this power, and our evident abuse of it, that has triggered a response that in a different way, seeks to minimise the importance of human beings, albeit for well-meaning if, from my perspective, muddle-headed reasons.

Many people concerned about the environment and wanting to “save the planet” argue that in order to do this, human beings must be made to see that they are no more important than any other life form. Our “anthropocentric” view has led to the despoiling of the earth and the extinction of other creatures, who have as much right – even more, some would say – to exist as we do. We are, they say, no more significant or “special” than slime moulds or giraffes or the animalcules in a puddle of rain water. Even more, we are much more dangerous than they or other organisms because of our mistaken idea of ourselves as somehow unique and significant. It is this that has led to the environmental crises that threaten the future of not only mankind but the earth itself. Climate change is only the most recent expression of this and the Extinction Rebellion movement only the most recent response to it.

This assessment of human importance is behind the kind of “enlightened misanthropy,” as we might call it, that is voiced by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First! and other similar “biocentric” organisations, biocentric meaning “life centred” as opposed to human centred. (We could say that they prefer a “biosophy” rather than an anthroposophy.) According to Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, we are all animals, and “an individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear.” Foreman goes on to add that he and many others would actually argue that the Grizzly Bear has more claim to any kind of importance than we do. How Foreman or anyone else could argue this isn’t exactly clear, given their premise that all life is of equal significance, but let’s leave that for now.

We may think that extreme remarks from radical activists can have little effect on the general consciousness of society. They are ranting from the side lines. But much of the rhetoric they employ is echoed by more respected thinkers. One such is the social philosopher John Gray, who in a series of popular and highly respected books has presented a misanthropy that, to my mind, frequently borders on the fanatical. Although couched in “environment friendly” language, his books really express little more than Gray’s profound dislike for human beings. For Gray, from the perspective of Gaia, the earth, “human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould.” But while this can be seen as expressing solidarity with other biocentrists, Gray goes further. We are not homo sapiens, as we narcissistically believe ourselves to be, but homo rapiens. We may agree that, yes, we have abused our power and laid waste to much of the earth, but is there nothing redeeming about us? For Gray, the answer is “No.” “A glance at any human,” he tells us “should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being.” We are simply a species that is highly successful at ravaging others. We need to jettison all pretence to being anything other than this – that is, to any “higher” notions of our humanity. It is, in fact, precisely this that has allowed us to rampage as we have. It is time, Gray says, to see ourselves as we truly are.

Now Gray is as entitled to his opinion about humanity as anyone else is entitled to theirs. But in our time, faced as it is with enormous challenges, of which our environmental crises make up a large portion, it seems more responsible, honest, and serious to agree with him, at least to the popular mind. The spirit of the time seems to compel us to embrace a collective mea culpa and to own up to our crimes. To not do this, and to argue that, even with all the damage we have done, there is still something different about human existence and our role here, that sets us apart, seems somehow aberrant. As a case in point let me mention that when, a few months ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames, I posted some remarks on social media expressing my sadness at the tragedy. While many shared my feeling, more than a few people wrote to say that fires destroy forests every day and that they are more of a loss than a church. Why was everyone so concerned about some cathedral? I certainly agree that a burnt forest is a loss, but while there are many trees there is only one Notre Dame. But the people making these remarks remained adamantly pro-forest and anti-cathedral and nothing I could say seemed to shake that opinion.

Now, while I in no way am suggesting that we shouldn’t face the crises that our own success as a species has created, I am also wary of the kind of indulgence in guilt and the peculiar self-satisfaction that it can bring. It strikes me that we live in a time when, because of our feelings of guilt, someone like Gray can be seen as an important, profound thinker, precisely because he makes us feel so guilty. We live in a “confessional” time, as any viewer of television talk shows knows. People today love to admit to their mistakes, their sins, their transgressions, and to do so in front of as large as audience as possible. But while they seem to be admitting their failures, it strikes me that there is a certain pride in doing so. Paradoxically, admitting your sins can be just another way of announcing your importance. And admitting your helplessness can be a way of avoiding your responsibilities and letting yourself off the hook. As the eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said, such humility may be admirable, but it may also be an excuse to accept the laziness and cowardice that allows one to avoid the responsibilities that come with being “the highest in the universe,” and a way of shirking the effort and suffering that taking on those responsibilities entails.

 

I mentioned that in my book I draw on other spiritual traditions along with the Hermetic, in order to express my sense of ourselves as cosmic caretakers. One such tradition is the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. In the tradition of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, human beings have a profound responsibility: we are a kind of cosmic repairman. In Luria’s creation myth, when God created the universe, he really made a mess of things. The sephiroth or vessels of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, that were supposed to contain the divine energies, were either not strong enough to contain them or too shallow to hold them. So what happened was not a big bang but a big spill, with the divine energies overflowing and getting mixed up with each other and with lower forces and energies, what we call matter. The result is the world we live in, with sparks of the divine trapped in the dense unwieldy world of matter – the similarity to the Hermetic account can be seen. In this world, “nothing is where it should be,” everything is jumbled up, and because of this we experience pain and suffering, and the divine energies, which are really one, are fragmented into opposites, at war with each other: good and evil, male and female, light and dark, and so on. Our job is to unite the fragments, reconcile the opposites, and put the cosmic Humpty Dumpty back together again.

How did we get landed with this responsibility? When he saw the mess He had made, God realized he needed help in sorting things out and so he created a helper, that is, us, humanity. We are here to perform what is called tikkun, which means “repair.” Our job is to release the divine spark trapped in the shards of matter, freeing them from the negative energies, known as klipoth. We find the sparks everywhere; in nature, in others, and in ourselves. As we perform tikkun through acts of awareness, kindness, and love – what the eighteenth century scientist and religious thinker Emmanuel Swedenborg called “doing the good that you know” – we clean up the mess God made and return the world to the state it was supposed to be in before He made a wreck of things.

Failure to perform tikkun means that we fail at our task as humans. And it is only by performing tikkun that we can be “fully human.” This idea of being “fully human” is not one that we easily embrace. It places a great burden and responsibility on us. After all, it is no small matter to be responsible for cleaning up after God and repairing the universe. It is no wonder then that many of us, if not most, shy away from this obligation. Faced with the great task placed before us, we say “What can I do? I am only human”

 

Recognizing the difference between being “fully human” and “only human” wasn’t limited to sixteenth century Kabbalists. In fact it formed the central idea of one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Abraham Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, started out as a Freudian but he soon became disenchanted with Freud’s approach. One reason he did was that the only people he met in his practice were sick ones. He grew tired of this as it understandably made him depressed. Maslow then hit upon what at the time seemed a radical idea. He decided that he wanted to study healthy people instead, to develop a psychology based on health, not illness. He did and he came up with some remarkable results. One was that all the healthy people he studied seemed to have what he came to call “peak experiences,” sudden moments of joy, happiness, fulfilment, that seemed to come for no reason at all, spontaneously, out of the blue. These were not “mystical” experiences per se, although they could lead to something like that. They were simply sudden realizations that life was good, that we all have an enormous amount to be grateful for, simply because we are alive. They were a kind of sudden, vivid remembering of the good we already have, a waking up to it. These peaks brought great self-confidence, a sense of strength and a deep feeling of purpose, something very different from the depression, anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness that Maslow had come to discover in the sick people he had studied. The “peak experience” gave Maslow a standard by which to gauge psychic health. They also provided a way of recognizing what being “fully human” would be like.

Maslow recognized that, psychologically, human beings seem to climb what he called a “ladder of needs.” Our first needs are the basic ones for food and drink. Then with these met, we need shelter, a home of some kind. Then we have a need for love, companionship, a relationship to others. When this is satisfied our need to be recognized and respected, for self-esteem, to be thought well of, becomes active. All of these needs are what Maslow called “deficiency needs,” because they are concerned with something we lack. I need food, a home, love, and self-esteem and feel their lack if they are missing. But Maslow found that in some people – not all,  but many – there are other, higher needs, what he called “meta-needs.” These are needs not based on a “lack” of something, but on the need to use our powers and abilities in some creative way. They are needs based on what we have, not on what we are missing. They are creative needs. They express the need to “self-actualize,” as Maslow put it, to become fully ourselves. In other words, to become “fully human.”

Although Maslow did not speak of tikkun, the way in which he describes a “self-actualized” person seems in many ways to parallel what a person who performed tikkun would be like. Self-actualized people are, paradoxically, not obsessed with themselves; they have a profound interest in the objective world and do not like being trapped in their personality. They are not in competition with others. Although they generally strive to be the best they can be at their work, whatever it is, it is not in order to be “No. 1,” but for the sake of the work itself; doing it well is its own reward. They are not interested in material gain or power or dominance, and in general are less concerned with their ego and have a sense of humour about themselves. They are more concerned with what is going on inside themselves than in what is happening outside and are content with simple pleasures and are tolerant of others. Although they are always striving to be more – they are what the philosopher Nietzsche called “self-overcomers” – they are happy with who they are. They accept themselves but paradoxically are not complacent.

Self-actualisers are also very disciplined and self-motivating and are generally good workers. They are not lazy and are not afraid of challenges. In fact they thrive on them. Maslow believed that we all have the potential to actualise ourselves, to be “all that we can be” and to become fully human. He also argued that if we fail to do this, the consequences can be dire. He famously said that if we deliberately plan on being less than we are capable of being, we will be unhappy for the rest of our life. Maslow’s vision was the furthest from the Freudian one of sick people that he started out from, but he was dismayed late in his life to discover that many people, it seemed, did fail to self-actualise, and did so, it seemed, on purpose. He once asked the students of one of his classes how many of them expected to become outstanding in their fields, to go on to do great work, to be creative successes? When hardly anyone raised their hand, he asked “Well, if not you, then who? Someone will. Why not you?” They had no answer to that. Indeed, we always think that someone else will be great, creative, successful, but not ourselves. Why?

Why do most of believe that we will not be great, or if we do think so, shy from admitting it? Peer pressure, of course. But this only begs the question of why our peers assume they will be mediocrities and chide those who think otherwise. But if Maslow is correct, we will be mediocrities because we decide to be. We choose to be less than we are capable of being on purpose. Why? Because we are afraid of the responsibilities and obligations being all we can be entail. Maslow christened this propensity in many of us to avoid actualizing ourselves “the Jonah Complex,” based on the Biblical story of Jonah, who tried to avoid the destiny God had in store for him. As we know, Jonah tried his best to avoid his destiny as a prophet, but in the end he had to accept it. He might have saved himself and God a lot of trouble if had done so from the start.

 

People who are subject to the Jonah Complex do not wish to be “fully human” and try to be satisfied with being “only human.” They try to avoid the destiny that their nature compels them to fulfil. In fact, they can be quite militant about this, accusing those who do want to actualize their potentials of being elitist, of thinking of themselves as somehow “special,” somehow “better” than others. This disparaging of those who try to be “fully human” by those content to be “only human,” is an expression of what the twentieth century German philosopher Max Scheler called resentment, an attempt by the “have nots” to make the “haves” feel guilty about themselves – the “haves” in this sense not people of material but of inner wealth. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1970 – Maslow was concerned that in the near future there would be a kind of “uprising” of non-self-actualisers against the self-actualisers, fuelled by a kind of “actualisation envy.” And it strikes me that in many ways, something like this informs a great deal of our postmodern culture. Many years ago, the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine wrote an essay called “The Use of the Beautiful,” in which she lamented the loss of the beautiful in modern culture, and suggested that this was in part motivated by a resentment against the high standard that beauty sets, and which we find difficult to meet. Instead of striving to approximate it as best we can, we instead dismiss it as oppressive, unrealistic, stuffy, old fashioned or what have you, and are happy instead with “what we like.” Much of modern art, beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal and including Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, can be seen as an attack on the idea of the beautiful, and on the idea of art itself. In the nineteenth century, the idea behind mass education was that it would help raise the average person up to a higher level. What seems to have happened is the opposite, with the higher being brought down to the lower. In many, if not most universities these days, the idea of the “great books” as agents of self-improvement is laughed at when it is not militantly attacked, and PhDs and other high degrees are offered in “popular culture.” I know this because I have spoken at more than one academic conference about this. My usual remark about this development is that back in the day, we made popular culture, we didn’t study it.

This desire to remain average and to be “just like everybody else” also informs the “good enough” ethos that makes up a large part of our contemporary sense of identity. We no longer strive to be good but to be “good enough,” a “good enough” parent, or a “good enough” husband or wife. In one sense, this is a reaction against the pressures placed on us to be “perfect,” the “perfect” mother or father or husband or wife. But there is a difference between being “perfect” and being “perfectly”, that is “fully” ourselves. “Perfect” is an abstract standard, an outside criterion we are asked to meet. Being fully yourself isn’t. That standard comes from within. It is the same challenge that the psychologist Jung called “individuating,” “becoming who you are,” with the emphasis on “you.” We decide what standards we will set for ourselves and which we will meet. What Maslow and Jung discovered is that for many of us, while we recognise what we could be, we nevertheless settle for something less, for being “good enough” versions of ourselves. And what is true of us as individuals is also true for the culture and society at large. Nietzsche saw this in his bible of self-overcoming, Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he spoke of the “last men.” This was a society and culture of the future, that embraced the “fallacy of insignificance” happily,  rejected all heroism and greatness, and was content with mediocrity, “good enoughness,” “only humanness”, creature comforts and an easy life. It was in many ways a society and culture not vastly different from our own. Today, the most popular thing on television are “reality TV” shows, in which people “just like us” are the stars. There are even television shows about people watching television shows that are about people “just like” those watching them. In Orwell’s 1984 the government kept the populace under constant surveillance. Now we do it ourselves and even jokingly call the most famous reality TV show Big Brother.

 

One sign that suggests we are living in something like the society that Nietzsche envisioned is the emphasis today placed on groups, on communities, and the suspicion that the individual who falls outside these groups is somehow not quite right. Self-actualisers, “individuaters,” those who are striving to become who they are, and not as the group is, are seen as selfish, as “lone nutters”, as somehow aberrant, and more and more the message is that we all need to belong to one group or another. If we don’t, there must be something wrong with us. But while self-actualisers are not misanthropes – quite the contrary – they are not particularly gregarious. Contrary to the old song, people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world. They often have nothing going on in their lives, and need other people to fill them up. What many people talk about most of the time is other people. Without them, they’d have little to say. Not self-actualisers. Often self-actualisers meet the psychological profile of the individuals Colin Wilson calls “Outsiders,” people whose need for meaning and purpose – “meta-needs,” according to Maslow – can’t be met by belonging or identifying with some group or other, but by a profound acceptance of a kind of solitariness, the solitude needed for creative work. Becoming yourself is lonely work, Jung tells us. It is the hardest thing we can do and no one can do it for us. Those who try to become themselves are often afflicted with a sense of guilt, with pangs of what Nietzsche called the “herd instinct.” Without doubt we are social animals. But those who are trying to become “fully human” often must give up the warmth and comfort of the herd and strike out on their own. And the price they pay for doing so is often guilt, isolation, and loneliness.

I should say that at the same time as there is an anti-individual sentiment today, there is also a kind of celebration of the average person, the common man or woman, exactly as he or she is, with no need to be any better. We all want respect. We all demand it and get angry if it is not immediately forthcoming. We are all special, notwithstanding that in such an arrangement no one is special, as being special, by definition, means standing out from the average. We all want to be applauded, not for any particular accomplishment or achievement, but simply for being us, as we are, run of the mill and rank and file, with no particular claim to any exceptional gift. In the words of another old song, these days, everybody is a star. Popular culture endorses this view. One sign of this is that more times than not, people of exceptional intellectual accomplishment are portrayed in films and television as somehow deeply flawed. So the contemporary Sherlock Holmes – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – is shown as practically autistic. There is something wrong with him, unlike the Everyman Watson, who is “just like us.” This is a far cry from Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character.

At the same time, the widespread addiction to social media, in which people post practically everything about themselves for all to see, is a sign, I think, that western society has reached Maslow’s self-esteem level on the ladder of needs. We are all pretty fascinating individuals, just as we are, and we want everyone to know this and to agree. And while this may suggest a kind of collective narcissism, it may also suggest that there are some of us out there who are moving into the level of the meta-needs, the need to self-actualise. That is my hope. These are the people I call the “creative minority.” But unlike those still obsessed with self-esteem, they do not broadcast their activities, mostly because they are too busy being active with them. They do not draw attention to themselves nor do they demand that everyone respect them. They are not particularly interested in what other people think about them, and they do not think very much about other people. They do not attend rallies or demonstrations or shout for this cause or another. They do not occupy Wall Street. Instead, they occupy their minds.

 

And here we come round to the question of exactly how we can take care of the cosmos. The subtitle of my book is “Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World.” One reader, a friend and fellow writer, was a bit put off by this, thinking that it suggested that the book was yet another call for ecological and environmental responsibility. I in no way suggest, in the book or anywhere else, that the more immediate ways of taking care of our particular patch of the cosmos, our earth, should be ignored, and I endorse them wholeheartedly. But while a great deal has been said and needs to be said about taking care of our physical environment, there is another environment which, it seems to me, doesn’t receive the attention that it should. I mean our inner environment, our inner world, that other nature that the Universal Mind in its wisdom has saddled us with. It is in relation to this that I speak of our other environment, our outer world, the physical one, as unfinished. To make clear what I mean by this will require some explanation. Let me see if in the time remaining to me I may be able to make a start on this.

One of the central tenets – if not the central one – of the Hermetic teaching, and of the other philosophies and teachings making up what is known as the Western “inner” or “esoteric” tradition, and which I have written about in several books, is that in it mind, spirit, or, as we would say today, consciousness is paramount. What does this mean? It means that unlike our contemporary scientific accounts which put the physical, material world in first place, and strive to derive our inner, metaphysical or spiritual world from it, the situation is actually reversed. For these traditions, mind, spirit, consciousness occupies first place and in some way that we do not fully understand, the physical, external world is derived from it. As the philosopher of language, friend of C. S. Lewis, and interpreter of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield succinctly put it, “Interior is anterior,” that is, it is earlier than the exterior, it comes before it. Although there have always been those who took the materialist stance as the correct one – our idea of the atom goes back to the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus – it has really only been since the seventeenth century that mind has lost the prestige it used to have, and has been seen as something that needs to be “explained” in terms of material processes. A book of mine, A Secret History of Consciousness, is devoted to taking this view to task. This development is itself part of a long process, an evolution of consciousness, that I have written about in this book and some others and forms, as it were, the common thread among all my books. What this suggests is that the materialist view, which has been dominant for the last few centuries, is not the final view or verdict on the nature of reality. It has been arrived at historically and is itself subject to change. And I would say that in recent times it has shown signs that it is past its “sell by” date, and that it’s shelf life is running out, if it isn’t already past due. Developments like deconstructionism, postmodernism and other, earlier changes in our worldview brought about by quantum physics, suggest as much. What will arise to take its place remains to be seen. We may be experiencing the first stages of the breakdown of the materialist, rationalist paradigm – this is what the philosopher Jean Gebser, whom I have written about in some of my books, argues – but it is not clear what it is making way for. That may not be clear for some time. But there may be some indications available to us now.

 

I haven’t mentioned Rudolf Steiner in this talk, except for name-dropping him a moment ago. But one of the strangest things Steiner said – and, depending upon your perspective, he said a number of strange things – was that the future physical condition of the planet will depend on the thoughts that people have now. So, according to Steiner, what we are thinking now will in some way influence the physical character of the earth in the future. Indeed, as Steiner said this a century ago, according to him, the thoughts of the people he said it to have presumably had something to do with the world as it is today. Whatever we may think of this, we must admit, somewhat radical remark, its essence is that the mind, our minds, affect reality. This is certainly a way of expressing Owen Barfield’s dictum that “interior is anterior.” We can say then, as I have in some interviews, that according to this view, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the mind doesn’t stay there. It reaches out into the world and changes it.

Now this is as radically other than what our accepted scientific tradition tells us as we can get. Since the philosopher John Locke stated it in the seventeen century, our mainstream intellectual tradition has accepted that “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” According to this view we are born, as Locke says, as tabula rasas, “blank slates,” empty until experience writes upon us. We are like unfurnished flats until we go out to Ikea to buy stuff to and fill them with. But what Steiner and the tradition he belongs to, which includes people like Plato, Goethe, Jung and many others, says is the opposite. We do not come into the world with empty heads. The world that we mistakenly believe writes upon us is itself blank, empty, until our minds give it form. Whether it is the Platonic Forms or Jung’s archetypes or the categories of Immanuel Kant, for this tradition, something in our minds reaches out and gives shape and contour to the raw material of experience. The world that Locke believed writes upon our minds is itself written upon by them. This is what Steiner meant when he said that we are “not only here in order to form for ourselves a picture of the finished world.” No. We “cooperate in bringing the world into existence.” And as he added: “The content of reality is only the reflection of the content of our minds.” In other words, no mind, no world.

The Corpus Hermeticum tells us exactly the same thing. As the Universal Mind tells Hermes Trismegistus, “within God everything lies in the imagination.” For the Hermetics, the imagination was everything. It was capable of remarkable feats; it’s abilities transcended the limits of our earthly nature easily. “Command your soul to go anywhere,” Hermes is told, “and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and again it is there at once… Order it to fly up to heaven and it will need no wings.” “If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand him. Sense as one within yourself the entire creation… then you can understand God.”

This recognition of the tremendous power of mind or the imagination is at the heart of what, in another book, I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” This knowledge was lost to the mainstream western intellectual tradition round about the time that Locke’s “blank slate” version of the mind came into prominence. But some never lost sight of it. So for the poet William Blake, “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” It is an Infinite and Eternal world where exist “the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in the Vegetable Glass of Nature.” (And here we see Blake contradict Locke outright.) “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination,” Blake insists, echoing the Universal Mind. “In your Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth and all you behold; tho’ it appears Without, it is Within, in your imagination…”

I don’t know if Rudolf Steiner ever mentioned William Blake in any of his lectures, but it is clear that they were both speaking about the same thing. But Steiner did not have to know of Blake, as both were speaking out of the same tradition, the one that, as Owen Barfield, who did know both visionaries, said has consciousness or mind taking precedence over matter, that has the “interior” as “anterior.” All three wanted to awaken their readers to the insight that the world we see around us is rooted in some profound yet mysterious way in our interior worlds. Although the world we see when we open our eyes “appears without,” it is really “within.” And again, in some mysterious way, this inner world is projected out of our consciousness and, as Steiner says, co-operates in bringing the world into existence.

Now, we might say that Blake, Steiner, and Barfield were poets and visionaries and so might be expected to grant the imagination more power and importance than it might warrant. Yet in recent times, something as rigorous and unpoetical as neuroscience seems to confirm what they are saying. In his important book The Master and His Emissary, the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist reboots the right brain/left brain discussion that had petered out, after an initial excitement, some time in the 1990s. What McGilchrist did was to show that what was important about the differences between our two cerebral hemispheres was not so much in what they do, as had initially been suggested, but in how they do it. Put briefly, our right cerebral hemisphere, which is the older of the two and the one McGilchrist calls “the Master,” presents a global, holistic, but vague, fuzzy “big” picture of reality, one geared toward overall meaning and connectedness. The left brain, or “Emissary’s” job is to unpack this global picture, to finetune it, to subject the whole to an analysis that distinguishes its parts. So we can say that while the right brain sees the forest, the left sees the individual trees, and also the individual leaves on one tree, and even the veins running through each leaf.

But what links McGilchrist’s work to what we are talking about here, is his suggestion that in conveying the “big”, global picture of reality, the right brain helps “bring it into being,” performing the task that Steiner places on each of us. He also suggests that while the left brain, because of its analytical mode, is geared toward controlling reality, “mastering” it – and the left brain, let me say, is the cerebral hemisphere responsible for the scientific and technological wonders that have made us the dominant species on the planet, thereby creating the crises that face us today – the right brain is more concerned with caring about and for reality. As McGilchrist says, if one brain is responsible for our “exploitation” of the world – the sort of behaviour that a misanthrope like John Gray takes argument with – the other is more of a “guardian” of reality. As I say in my book, a guardian, a repairman, and a caretaker all seem to share some similar functions. So it would seem that according to McGilchrist, at least in this regard, contemporary neuroscience and Hermeticism and Kabbalah have much in common.

Given this, a word of caution does not seem out of place. If the world outside us depends in some mysterious way on the one inside us, we would be wise to aware of what is going on inside our heads, because, as Steiner, Blake, Barfield and split-brain psychology seem to tells us, sooner or later we will run into it in the outer world. That we create our own reality is, of course, a commonplace of much New Age thought. It has by this time become something of a cliché. But clichés become clichés precisely because they have a basis in truth. Blake’s one time teacher, Swedenborg, taught him and the rest of us that heaven and hell are not places we will go to after our death, but are within us now. We create them with our own attitudes and inhabit them long before our body dies. Jean Paul Sartre may have believed that hell is “other people,” but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he knew, as well as heaven, is ourselves. While much of the attraction to the idea that we “create our own reality” is motivated by using the imagination to acquire health, wealth and power, the deeper appreciation of this insight is geared toward understanding how we are responsible for the reality that already surrounds us, how we unconsciously project our fears and desires out into the world, and mistakenly blame others or a cruel fate for what is really our own handiwork. Poets, who are always more aware of the power of the imagination than the rest of us, have always known of this and have spoken words of warning. Goethe tells us to beware of what we wish for in youth, for we will get it in middle age. And W. B. Yeats, who took the imagination seriously enough to discipline his own through his serious study of the western inner tradition, tells us that “whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.”

If remarks like these, urbane and dramatic as they are, were solely rooted in a poet’s fancy, we could accept or reject them as we wished. But when we are told that the magnificent organ lodged within our skulls – to date, the most complex thing in the known universe –  is somehow responsible for bringing the world we see each day into being, we may be excused for giving such pronouncements more consideration. And when to this is added the wisdom of a long tradition which places our consciousness, our minds and imagination, at the fount of creation, then the idea that, in ways we do not fully understand, we are indeed caretakers of the cosmos, guardians of the world, or repairmen of the universe, we may be forgiven if we begin to take the idea seriously. This is not to celebrate our importance, or to applaud our significance, to pat our mutual backs in smug self-satisfaction. Far from it. It is to recognise that we each have a responsibility, an obligation, to actualise within ourselves the power that can help move the universe along, and that by becoming fully human, we can do our part to make the world a better place for our being in it.