Here’s the latest of my Thinking Allowed Interviews with Jeffrey Mishlove. This time we look at one of the most fascinating and influential figures in the western esoteric tradition, the Eighteenth Century scientist and spiritual explorer, Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg influenced practically every important intellectual, cultural, and spiritual figure in the Nineteenth Century, from William Blake to Charles Baudelaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson to Honore Balzac – and that’s just for starters. In the interview, I try to do what I aim at in my book, Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas: to show that if you don’t know who Swedenborg is, you really should make an effort to get some idea of his importance, both in the history of ideas, and in our own attempts to make sense of life. He helped August Strindberg get through a bad patch and Helen Keller found joy and meaning in his work. That sounds like a pretty good endorsement.
The Italian edition of Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump goes on sale today. I’m very excited about this, but as I say in the new Introduction I’ve written for this edition, my excitement is tempered with concern. Since writing Dark Star Rising, I’ve watched developments in Europe with more than a little trepidation. A populism anchored in right wing politics seems spreading across the continent. And not only in Europe, as events in places like Brazil seem to suggest. Here, in the UK, where I live, the exit of Britain from the European Union has only generated more chaos and stimulated more of the anger and abuse that seem to have taken the place of political discussion. To put it mildly, these are uncertain and unsettling times and there doesn’t seem to be any end to them in sight. Those of us with clear heads have to keep them. Let’s be thankful that so far that’s only metaphorically. Here’s the Introduction in Inglese.
Dark Stars Over Europe
By Gary Lachman
When I heard from my publisher that an Italian edition of my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump would be coming out soon, I was of course delighted. Although I am an American ex-pat living in London now for some twenty-plus years, I have always felt a strong connection to Europe. (And for those who will point out that England is part of Europe, I suggest they consider Brexit and the feeling that many in the UK have these days towards those bureaucrats “on the continent.”) This is romanticism, to be sure, but it is a part of me nonetheless. This means that whenever I hear that a book of mine is coming out in Spanish, Norwegian, or, as this one is, Italian, I feel a certain thrill, and am excited at the idea that this usually means that I will be travelling to those countries to give talks and lectures to promote the new translation.
Yet I have to say that on this occasion my delight is tempered with a certain hesitation. I am troubled by the feeling that for a publisher to want to bring out an edition of this book in a European tongue, means that its topic is of interest to the people that speak it. Normally this would give me nothing but pleasure. But this time it’s different.
Why? The main idea behind Dark Star Rising is that in recent years there has been a resurgence of a kind of “occult politics” in the United States, but also in Russia, and that it is part of the wave of populism and nationalism that has spread in those countries and is now flooding Europe. In an earlier book, Politics and the Occult, I looked at how occult and esoteric ideas have informed politics in the modern world on both sides of the ideological divide, left and right. In fact, I wrote that book in order to show that not all “occult politics” must be right-wing, as writers like Umberto Eco have argued. There is a kind of “progressive” occult politics too, going back to the Rosicrucians of the early seventeenth century, and in my book I give many examples of it. But this recent return of occult ideas and beliefs to politics seems fairly anchored on the right. One example of this may be familiar to some Italian readers.
In February 2017, the New York Times ran a story about a talk Steve Bannon, then Donald Trump’s chief strategist, gave to a group of conservative churchmen in the Vatican. Bannon spoke on his usual topics – immigration, the fight against Islamic fascism, the Global Tea Party movement – but what the Times pointed out was something else. In the course of commenting on Russian president Vladimir Putin and his upholding of “traditional values,” Bannon mentioned someone in Putin’s milieu who was a reader of Julius Evola. As I point out in the book, Julius Evola was a brilliant but controversial twentieth century Italian esoteric thinker whose political views were very much on the right. He tried to influence first Mussolini, and then Hitler, and he later became a kind of éminence grise for movements on the Italian post-war right that were rising up, as Evola says, “amidst the ruins.”
That an adviser to the newly elected President of the United States was a reader of Evola was certainly something to consider. That the New York Times would make it headline news made me feel that indeed something strange was going on. This was the sort of thing that maintained a kind of fugitive existence on the fringe of the mainstream world. Now it was smack in the middle of everyday life. What was even stranger was that the person Bannon was alluding to, the reader of Evola within Putin’s circle, was Alexander Dugin, an individual with one of the most eccentric careers in postmodern politics. Dugin started out in the 1980s as anti-Soviet dissident punk and through a series of remarkable metamorphoses, became a respected authority on geopolitics, some of whose ideas – as I argue in the book – seem to have informed President Putin’s activities in Ukraine and the Crimea.
If this was not enough, Evola is also one of the ideological pillars of the Alt-Right, the far right counter-culture movement that grew up around Trump’s presidential campaign. And just as in the 1920s Evola tried to influence Mussolini through the use of a kind of “mind magic” or “mental science,” Richard Spencer, founder of the Alt-Right, claimed to have put Trump into office, through the use of a similar kind of magic, this time involving the internet. It is quite a story and I won’t spoil it for the reader here. I will only add that Trump himself is a devotee of a school of philosophy known as New Thought, whose central belief is that “thoughts are causative,” that through the power of the mind alone, we can alter, even “create” reality. Trump’s particular brand of mind magic is called “positive thinking,” but as I try to show in the book, it has much in common with the kind of postmodern magic that Spencer and the Alt-Right say they have got up to, as well as with the sort of occult ideas informing President Putin’s geopolitical adviser.
All this of course could be nothing more than the most ridiculous nonsense. Supporters of Trump will say he didn’t need magic to win the election; critics will say that any “magic” is just a smokescreen for Trump’s cynical Machiavellianism. But in a time when the very idea of “reality” or “truth” seems at best very shaky, who is to say what forces or factors can influence events? For the better part of a decade, people in Russia inhabited a reality that was for the most part invented for them by the government and distributed through the media. (How different it is today is debatable, but the emphasis, I think, has changed.) The kind of “reality TV” world that Putin had in place may have been the inspiration for America’s own reality TV president. Certainly the relativity of truth and the rejection of objective fact that characterizes the postmodern, deconstructive view emanating from the universities for decades, has played a part in obscuring the difference between reality and fantasy. As I say in the book, it has in fact precipitated a trickle-down effect, from the metaphysical heights to the lowlands of everyday. The “post-truth” “alternative fact” pop nihilism we luxuriate in today is the result. Reality is up for grabs. If each of us doesn’t take hold of it firmly, someone else will provide one for us. There are many people out there with less than salubrious designs for doing just that.
Since leaving Trump’s team, Bannon, we know, has toured Europe, drumming up support for and fanning the coals of the kind of populism that put Trump into power. Like all populism, it succeeds – when it does – not through reasoned argument – although Bannon and his fellow travellers will argue otherwise – but through the power of images, symbols, and slogans. These simple and direct stimuli reach below our conscious minds and influence us at deep, visceral levels, the same levels at which magic works – when it does. If the claim of success that Spencer and his gang have made is warranted, it did in November 2016. And if I am correct about the influence Alexander Dugin had on Putin’s activities in Ukraine and Crimea, it did in 2013-14 too. Are there similar efforts being made in Europe today? Does the success of nationalism and populism in several European states suggest that there are? I don’t know. I do know that in Dark Star Rising I have tried to dispel the darkness around these matters as best as I can, and to make clear what is at stake these days in what I call a “war on reality.” That my publisher Tlon is putting out the book encourages my outlook. Their name suggests that they are aware of the fragility of reality – I am a great reader of Borges – and that they are conscious of exactly what is at stake. I am certain that a reader picking up this book will feel that way too.
London, November 2018
 Gary Lachman Politics and the Occult (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2008)
I’ll be sharing the bill with Dean Radin, Alex and Allyson Grey, and Regina Meredith at the Omega Workshops in Rhinebeck, New York, this October. From Lost Knowledge to Real Magic: https://www.eomega.org/workshops/real-magic. My first NY appearance since – well, even I don’t remember. I know its some time away but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get word out sooner rather than later. If you can make it it would be great to see you there.
You don’t get these three together that often, although in his early days, Wilson did meet Raine – he tells the story in his account of the Angry Young Men, The Angry Years. I met Wilson and Raine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raine and Corbin met; I haven’t come across an account of them meeting, but they moved in the same circles and knew the same people. Their reason for appearing here is that I am posting links to two recent lectures. One is another of my ongoing conversations with Jeffrey Mishlove for his New Thinking Allowed series, this time about Colin Wilson. The other is the last lecture in my Lost Knowledge of the Imagination series of talks given for Jeremy Johnson’s excellent Nura Learning site. I write about Wilson in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson and I write about Henry Corbin and Kathleen Raine in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, so if you watch the talks and want to know more, those are the best places to start. Once again, happy new year. If enough Outsiders use their imagination, we may just be able to pull this one out of the fire.
And may 2019 be gentle to us all. Many thanks to all of you for making 2018 possible. Without you it couldn’t have happened. That’s something to think about. In the meantime, I wish I could give you all something in return. Alas, all I have is a link to my latest interview with Jeffrey Mishlove for his excellent New Thinking Allowed series. It’s about Madame Blavatsky. She may have been teetotal, but I bet New Years’s Eve was a hoot – or a Koot Hoomi – with her around. My next interview with Jeffrey, about Colin Wilson, will be released in January, and I’ll post the link when it is. Until then, all the best and sincere wishes for a truly human new year.
Recently I gave a talk to the Theosophical Society here in London about my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Here’s a link to the video of the talk. I’m always happy to speak at the TS. The audience is always intelligent and friendly and open to new ideas.
In other news, I’m being interviewed on the late Art Bell’s radio program, Midnight in the Desert, this Wednesday evening, December 12, at 11:00 Pacific Time. I’m getting up at 6:00 AM on Thursday morning in order to do it, compliments of the time difference between London and the west coast. Dave Schrader is at the helm these days. I did wonder if they knew that Midnight on the Desert is the title of an autobiographical book by J. B. Priestley? They do now because I told them. In any case, it looks like it will be a broad conversation about my work in general. They take questions, so if you are up and listening, please check in.
Here are links to two lectures I’ve given recently. One, on “Jung’s Search for Meaning,” was given for the Weekend University here in London last summer. The other, “A Different Way of Knowing,” is the first part of the three part seminar on Lost Knowledge of the Imagination I’ve been giving through Nura Learning. I imagine a lecture should speak for itself, but here’s the general idea: In the first I try to bring together Jung’s notion of the “transcendent function” – the “lift” the psyche gets when the conscious and unconscious minds reach an agreement – with Maslow’s “peak experiences” and Colin Wilson’s Faculty X. In the second, I take the class through the first chapter in Lost Knowledge, trying to bring out exactly what a “different way of knowing” might be like. You should be able to take it from there.