Hermetic Romanticism

This is an extract from the closing chapter of my new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, about the influence of Hermeticism, and its mythical founder, on western thought. Here I reflect on some ways in which Romanticism and early modern poetry were informed by Hermetic ideas.

      The most obvious link between Goethe and Hermeticism is his classic occult drama Faust, but Goethe was also deeply interested in the Rosicrucians, and his unfinished poem Die Geheimnisse (“The Mysteries”) is about the secret Brotherhood. Reading Johann Valentin Andreae’s Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz inspired Goethe to write his own Hermetic fable or Märchen,  The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This in turn inspired Rudolf Steiner to develop his own form of Hermetic philosophy, first under the auspices of theosophy, then later through his own teaching, anthroposophy.

Steiner, who at the age of twenty-two was given the task of editing Goethe’s scientific writings, was also deeply influenced by the poet’s work on plant morphology, The Metamorphosis of Plants. Here Goethe spoke of what he called “active seeing,” a way of observing nature that saw it as living, developing, and purposeful, not as the “dead” mechanism of Marin Mersenne and Descartes. In nature Goethe recognized an animated whole that expressed itself in its innumerable creations and their perpetual transformation, a perception that the Hermeticist Marsilio Ficino or Robert Fludd would have shared. “Active seeing” is a way of participating with the thing observed, and not, as the new scientific method proposed, of remaining “detached” and “objective” toward it, which meant, in effect, to treat it as if it were “dead,” with no reality other than that which could be weighed and measured. As Goethe practised “active seeing,” he discovered that he could perceive what he called the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant from which all others derived, a kind of Platonic “blueprint” that, while not immediately visible to the untrained eye, can nevertheless be perceived through focussed attention to a plant throughout all its stages of development. The key here is that the observer’s consciousness enters into a kind of union with the plant or other object of observation. For Goethe it also happened when he viewed Strasbourg Cathedral during its construction; he could, without seeing the plans, tell before it was finished how the completed structure would look. That is, through his imagination, Goethe could, when practising “active seeing,” enter into the inner being of whatever he was observing, in the way that the philosopher Bergson argued “intuition” could. Here “imagination” is not understood in the reductive sense of “unreal” but in the sense given it by Hermetic thinkers such as Ficino and Suhrawardi, as a means of entering the Hūrqalyā, the Imaginal World or anima mundi that mediates between the world of pure abstraction (Plato’s Ideas) and physical reality (in Goethe’s case, a plant or a cathedral). Another area in which Goethe applied “active seeing” was in optics, and in his Theory of Colour he famously challengedNewton’s discoveries about light, which he argued were obtained through a kind of “torture” of natural phenomena. (Like William Blake, who also railed against him, Goethe was unaware ofNewton’s alchemical interests.)

Goethe’s “active seeing” and its concomitant recognition of a “living nature” was shared by the Naturphilosophie that developed in Germany in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Represented by the philosophers F.J.W. Schelling, Franz von Baader, and others, it argued for a Nature as a living whole, which it believed was the visible aspect of Spirit — or, more Hermetically, Mind. Because of this union between Nature and Spirit, Naturphilosophie saw the world as an expression of Spirit, and hence recognized it as a kind of text to be decoded through the principle of correspondence, which is a central theme of Hermeticism. As Antoine Faivre remarks, for Naturphilosophie, the world is full of  “symbolic implications” suggesting “invisible processes,” that correlate with human feelings;  hence “knowledge of Nature and knowledge of oneself go hand in hand,” clearly an Hermetic insight.

 Naturphilosophie influenced the philosopher Hegel, whose Hermetic links were mentioned in the last chapter, and it was also an influence on the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who, along with Goethe, was a strong influence on Rudolf Steiner. Again, against the new “scientific” view of a dead, mechanical nature, and the old religious view of a lowly, corrupt one, Naturphilosophie proposed a vital, animated, and intelligent Nature, that it regarded and experienced holistically. A later thinker to share in this Hermetic perception of a living, intelligent universe was the nineteenth century psychologist Gustav Fechner, whose ideas influenced those of William James (Chapter One). Fechner did solid, fundamental work in experimental psychology, but he was also a visionary who believed that man stood in the centre of the cosmos, between the soul of Nature and that of the stars, which he saw as angels — a deeply Hermetic view. Henri Bergson (Chapter Two) and Alfred North Whitehead, whose “process philosophy” presents a living, growing universe, also shared the Hermetic notion of panpsychism, the belief that mind, rather than a product of material forces operating solely in human brains, pervades the universe. In more recent years the panpsychic idea has been proposed by the philosopher of mind David Chalmers, and by now the notion of a living planet, James Lovelock’s Gaia, has become a part of our common culture.

Another Romantic poet that shared Naturphilosophie’s Hermetic view of a living cosmos and its belief in a unity between the spiritual and natural world was Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known under his pen-name of Novalis. Novalis is perhaps the most openly Hermetic of the Romantics, in that his fragmentary work is full of the kind of aphoristic remarks that the scholar Jean-Pierre Mahé argues is of the essence of the Hermetic teaching. As Clement Salaman writes “There are passages in Hermes which may be read in a few seconds and yet contemplated for life.” The same can be said for much of Novalis’ writings, which, like the Hermetic aphorisms, are meant to be pondered and meditated on as aids to spiritual insight. As the Romantic movement saw a shift in occult practice from the meticulous observance of ritual and ceremony to the power of the imagination, the figures of the poet or artist and the mage began to merge, a metamorphosis I chart in A Dark Muse. Novalis recognizes this in his Hermetic remark that “The genuine poet is all-knowing — he is an actual world in miniature.” This microcosmic/macrocosmic note is struck again when Novalis writes that “We will come to understand the world when we understand ourselves,” and again when he tells us that “Man is a sun and his senses are planets.”

Bees of the Invisible

Another of Novalis’ sayings leads us to a more modern Hermetic poet. “We dream of journeys through the cosmos,” Novalis wrote, and added: “isn’t the cosmos within ourselves? The depths of the spirit we know not. Toward the Interior goes the arcane way. In us, or nowhere, is the Eternal with its worlds, the past and future.” With its echoes of Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno, this is a clear expression of the Hermetic idea that man must house within himself the entire universe. More than a century later, another poet writing in German, the Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke, himself echoed Novalis. In the Seventh of his Duino Elegies, Rilke wrote that “Nowhere can the world exist but within.” In response to what he saw as the “emptying” of the world of significance through the rise of the rationalistic reductive view, Rilke, like many other late-Romantic souls, turned inward. The old symbols of meaning — whether religious or classical — were no longer viable; as I’ve remarked in A Secret History of Consciousness, “like exhausted batteries, they could no longer hold a charge.” So Rilke recognized that his task — the task of the poet — was to save the visible, outer world from complete meaninglessness, by taking it into his own soul. The microcosm would save the macrocosm, by sheltering it within itself.

Rilke spelled out this idea in a remarkable letter to his Polish translator Witold von Hulewicz. Not only were the once potent religious and spiritual symbols no longer able to carry the force of the numinous, even the items of everyday life were now ersatz. Rilke speaks of “pseudo things” and “Dummy-Life” coming from America — the increasingly disposable manufactured junk rolling off countless production lines —  and laments how, in the not too distant past, the articles of everyday life still retained a kind of soul, an interiority. “Even for our grandparents,” Rilke writes, “a “House”, a “Well”, a familiar tower, their very dress, their cloak, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate…” With that intimacy gone, it is up to the poet, with his alchemical powers, to transmute the things of the earth into a new kind of existence. Hence, Rilke advises that the Angel of the Elegies — a symbol of transfigured being — will not be impressed by any supernatural display, but that we should rather offer him some mundane item, a jug, a rope, a bridge, provided it has been transfigured by our bringing it within. And what can this sheltering of things in our interior world mean but to transport them from the physical plane to that of the Imaginal World, to the soul of the Earth, where they will be protected from further decay?

It is through this process, Rilke told von Hulewicz, that we become what he called the “bees of the invisible.” In the Ninth Elegy Rilke asks: “Earth, isn’t this what you want, to arise within us invisible? To be wholly invisible someday?” Rilke called the task of accomplishing this Herzwerk, “heart work,” and in his letter he spells it out in detail. “Our task,’ he writes, ‘is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves [my italics] so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its being may rise again, ‘invisibly’ in us. We are the Bees of the Invisible.” We do not do this solely for ourselves, Rilke tells us, but as an effort on behalf of what he calls “the Whole.” “All the forms of the here and now,” he told von Hulewicz, “are not merely to be used in a time-limited way, but, so far as we can, instated within the superior significance in which we share…” That superior significance is not “a Beyond, whose shadow darkens the earth,” but a Whole into which transitory things are “everywhere plunging.” Rilke’s Whole, like the philosopher Jean Gebser’s ‘origin’ strikes me as not too dissimilar to the Hermetic “One, the All,” and it may be worth noting that Gebser began his explorations into the “structures of consciousness” through a study of Rilke’s poetry.

If Rilke’s Herzwerk seems less triumphant than either Pico or Bruno’s challenge to “become the universe,” or even less Romantic than Novalis, this shouldn’t be surprising. Rilke was writing at a time when Gebser’s “deficient mode of the mental-rational consciousness structure” had reached a kind of peak (or, perhaps more apt, a vale), and his call to “save the world” understandably has, if not an air of desperation, at least an elegiac tone. Rilke was writing at the time of “the decline of the West,” after the devastating catastrophe of the First World War, and in many ways his call to “save the world” is a salvage operation. Yet he gathers from it some remarkable prospects. Elsewhere I have commented on some similarities between Rilke’s call to recreate the Earth “invisibly” and some ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Having come back to this theme, I now see more similarities. Rilke writes that the work of converting the “visible and tangible into the invisible vibration…of our own nature…introduces new vibration-numbers into the vibration-spheres of the universe,” a thought that Pythagoras, one of the Hermetic prisca theologia, would not have argued with. Rilke goes on to say that “since the various materials in the cosmos are only the results of different rates of vibration” — an idea he shared with G.I. Gurdjieff– “we are preparing in this way, not only intensities of a spiritual kind, but — who knows? — new substances, metals, nebulae and stars.”

This is a remarkable reflection. By transforming the outer world into an inner invisible one, Rilke is saying that we may indeed be creating new worlds, not only interior ones, but “real,” physical, tangible ones. An astronomical analogy may make this clear. By drawing the things of the outer world into the “black hole” of our consciousness (which is invisible, as an astronomical black hole is because its gravity is so great that light cannot escape it), we may be creating, somewhere out in the universe, what some astronomers call a “white gusher,” the other end of a black hole, a kind of cosmic geyser, out of which all the matter sucked into a black hole emerges, but transformed into new matter, Rilke’s “metals, nebulae and stars.” Rilke, in effect, is saying that our mental acts, our consciousness, can create worlds, and this was an idea he shared with Steiner. One of the most baffling things Steiner said was that the future physical body of the Earth will be shaped by the thoughts of people living today, just as the Earth of the past was formed by the thoughts of earlier people (so the physical world we experience today — its clouds, mountains, lakes, and so on — has its roots, at least according to Steiner, in the consciousness of people in the past). In different ways, both Steiner and Rilke are saying the same thing: that consciousness, the mind, can create physical reality. This seems to take the Hermetic view of man as a microcosm a step further: not only can we house the cosmos in our minds, we can actually use our minds to create it. If nothing else, this puts a whole new meaning into the Hermetic notion that we are “caretakers” of the world.


Work ethic of an outsider

“You ask me how I try to ‘become god’. I can only reply that I try constantly to awaken my mind and to deepen my control over my own powers. I do this by trying to keep my life free of irrelevancies. I live quietly. I don’t chase women, and I try to avoid too many ‘friends’…

I am afraid that one of the favorite fallacies of men of talent is that they ought to be Living with a Capital L. Lots of women, public triumphs, discussions into the dawn. This is stupidity. I admire a Kant or Heidegger more, who lives a quiet life and tries to reach the stars only in his mind…

If the definition of a mystic is a man who is completely concerned with his inner-life, then I suppose I am a mystic. But I am a mystic who does not shirk the responsibilities of expressing his insights in language.”

Colin Wilson on Henry Miller, 1965

How One Gets Something From Nothing

Materialism wants to explain life in terms of dead matter and mind in terms of mindlessness – which means, in effect, that it wants to deny both by explaining each as a complex and exceptional case of its opposite. But this is like saying that intelligence is really only a peculiar form of stupidity.

An out-take from Politics and the The Occult


On the problem of egalitarianism and ‘higher types’

In his last years the great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow became troubled by the political implications of his psychology of “self-actualization.” Among other ideas, this entailed a concept of being “fully human,” which suggested that, in Maslow’s uncomfortable phrase, “some people are more ‘human’ than others.” Maslow wrote that “the problem of the ‘biological elite’ has inescapably confronted me in my efforts to build a theory of the good society.” By the “biological elite” Maslow meant “self-actualizing” men and women, individuals who, for one reason or another, “actualise” their potential, and, as result of this, experience a greater degree of psychological health than those who do not, evidence for this being the repeated recurrence of “peak experiences,” moments of an almost mystical sense of happiness and fulfilment. What sets “self-actualizers” apart from less psychologically healthy people – everyone from psychopaths to the merely discontented and neurotic – was, Maslow concluded, some innate, biological disposition, something, that is, inside them. To be sure, social and economic conditions can help or hinder one’s “actualisation.” But as Maslow points out, many of the “self-actualizers” he studied came from deprived backgrounds, and made real their potentials, in spite of adverse conditions. (In fact, in some cases, difficult conditions may even be a spur to “self-actualization.”) Maslow envisioned a time “when there is no longer social injustice to serve as an alibi or excuse for one’s own biological inadequacies” and when there “might well be a great increase of […] malicious envy of those who are more successful in their achievements.”

Thinking of ways to “protect the biologically gifted from the almost inevitable malice of the biologically non-gifted,” Maslow suggested something like a new “priestly class to which is given less monetary reward and fewer privileges or luxuries than the average members of the overall population,” given that  “self-actualizers” are less interested in material rewards than in the “metagratifications” or “intrinsic values” of “advancing beauty, excellence, justice or truth.”

Maslow’s vision of a kind of  Brahmin caste of “self-actualizers,” uninterested in the kind of material gratification that most people desire, and oriented toward more “spiritual” concerns, is a recurring fantasy in the world of occult politics. It’s the basis for Hermann Hesse’s monumental novel The Glass Bead Game, in which, in some unspecified future, a society of philosophers, artists and other “gifted” individuals form a cultural elite, set apart from the masses. In the 1920s, in a book called The Art of Being Ruled, the British painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, a writer not usually associated with anything even vaguely occult, suggested essentially the same arrangement as Maslow. Lewis argued that with the rise of democracy and egalitarianism, cultural values were increasingly being levelled and that mediocrity was becoming the norm, something we experience today as “dumbing down.” One result of this is that the intellectuals considered the average person a “yahoo” – from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – and the ordinary man saw the artist as some sort of freak. To safeguard high cultural values, and to maintain social order, Lewis argued that society should be split into two classes. Instead of the old, inequitable chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – in which a small group of people get to do the things that most of the others want to do too – there would be “something like a biological separating-out of the chaff from the grain,” the “chaff” being the person motivated by material desires and entertainments, the “grain” being the philosopher or artist – or, in Maslow’s term, the “self-actualizer.”  See Abraham Maslow “Humanistic Biology: Elitist Implications of the Concept of ‘Full-Humanness’” in Future Visions: The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow, ed. Edward Hoffman (Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, 1996)  

The reader will note that this is among Maslow’s unpublished works, suggesting that he was aware of the difficulty in discussing such inflammatory issues, especially at the time he wrote it, in 1968, when notions of what we call “political correctness” were first taking root. Today, although biological and evolutionary psychology are established disciplines, the difficulty in airing any doubts about the dictums of egalitarianism remain, and indeed, have only increased. About another paper, on the “failure” of liberalism, Maslow’s editor Hoffman remarks that it showed Maslow “slowing moving toward a stance that today would be most closely associated with neoconservatism.” (p. 160). That Maslow was also fond of the work of the novelist Ayn Rand, an outspoken advocate of capitalism and a critic of the welfare state, highlights the complexities of “spiritual politics.” Maslow was one of the major figures associated with the Esalen Institute, the famous West Coast counter-culture “think tank,” whose ethos was as far removed from Ayn Rand’s as possible, and whose lack of intellectual rigour eventually led Maslow to reject its approach. (See the Afterword to my Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind (2010) where I tell the story of Maslow’s encounter with the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls.) Self-motivation, personal responsibility and self-discipline – character traits of Maslow’s “self-actualizers” – have much in common with the “rugged individualism” associated with the heroes of Rand’s novels, and which was under attack in the 1960s and 70s by a variety of ‘alternative’ schools of thought, from the New Left to feminists.

Similar out-takes are available in Electricty of The Mind: The Anomalist 14.

Some Praise About Turn Off Your Mind From The Times Literary Supplement

“Billed as an enquiry into those occult undercurrents which flowed beneath the social revolution of the 1960s, this book burgeons over the course of 500 pages, into something approaching a magical history of the twentieth century – a primer in the significance of Madame Blavatsky, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, H.P. Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, L. Ron Hubbard, Erich von Daniken, Uri Geller, Anton LaVey, the Rolling Stones, and the demon Choronzon. Colin Wilson and Marianne Faithfull are thanked in the acknowledgements.

Gary Lachman, once the bassist for the pop band Blondie, makes a likeable, unpretentious, knowledgeable guide, lacing his text with hints of autobiography which suggest the glamour of his past. While far from being a sceptic, Lachman is nonetheless capable of bracing cynicism when required. Pleasingly, his book is filled with terrific stories, the veracity of which he neither accepts without question nor dismisses out of hand. The most intriguing tales include Charles Manson auditioning for the Monkees, the 1974 ‘kidnap’ of David Bowie by what the singer claimed were ‘ a warlock and two witches’ who wanted him’ to meet the Devil’ and, somehow most cherishably, a description of a Sicilian holiday embarked  on in 1955 by the sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, in which they made a pilgrimage to the ruins of the former home of Aleister Crowley, where they set to work at once on a project of restoration, soon discovering obscene murals of ‘ one-eyed demons’ and a ‘ magic circle, covered over by a concrete floor.’ “ Jonathan Barnes in The Times Literary Supplement

An excerpt from A Concise History of Book Burning, 2nd edition 2013

Estimates of the number of works collected within the library of Alexandria range from 500,000, to more than a million, but as no list or catalogue of the library’s contents has ever come to light, these figures must remain possibilities. The number of scrolls, however, must have been great, as the library was founded by Ptolemy I Soter, and continued to exist in some form until the sack of Alexandria by the Arab leader Amr ibn al’Aas in 639 AD. Asked what should be done with the library, Amr ibn al’Aas is reported to have said that the books ‘either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they agree with it, in which case they are superfluous,’ and ordered they be burned to heat the baths for his soldiers. Debate remains over the truth of this, as it does over much that is said about the library, but by this time it had been accidentally burned by Julius Caesar, when he inadvertently set fire to it while trying to prevent Ptolemy III from reaching his ships (48 BC); suffered pillage by the Emperor Aurelian (273 AD); and was destroyed by the Christian Patriarch Theophilus in 391, when the Christian Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of all pagan temples. On this occasion, the Serapeum, dedicated to the worship of the syncretic god Serapis, was also destroyed, as were temples to Mithras and other heathen deities.

Alexandria had been a remarkably tolerant city under Greek and pagan Roman rule, but by the time the Christians had control, this liberal attitude had vanished, and Theodosius is credited with inaugurating the practice of burning books on purpose (unlike Julius Caesar, who only did it by accident.) Not long after Theophilus started scouring Alexandria clean of heathens, the pagan philosopher Hypatia, one of the most brilliant women of the ancient world, was attacked by a mob of Christian fanatics, who skinned her alive with oyster shells and burned her remains. They were encouraged in this by Cyril, the Christian patriarch who followed Theophilus, and who was later canonized. Although the Platonic Academy would carry on for another century or so, to all intents and purposes, the pagan world ended with Hypatia’s death.

As the library housed most of the world’s great knowledge it understandably attracted the world’s thinkers and scholars. We can only surmise what other writings could be found in this lost treasure — many, no doubt, that we have never heard of — but known to have been contained in its shelves were the works of Euclid, Archimedes, and the astronomer Ptolemy, whose view of the cosmos would remain dominant until Copernicus pointed out its discrepancies in 1543. Among others whose work could be found in the library were Eratosthenes, who knew the circumference of the Earth, and Aristarchus, who argued that the planets orbit the sun, centuries before Copernicus did. The forty-two books that Clement of Alexandria attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were, he believed, available at the library. These, alas, he also believed had been destroyed by Julius Caesar’s clumsiness.

Welcome to Gary Lachman’s pages, where consciousness and culture meet, or at least get as close together as possible.

Hi, I’m Gary Lachman (also known as Gary Valentine), the writer, journalist, and musician who, at least according to one critic, is “an increasingly prolific engine of literate, well-written, and clearheaded books about esoteric history and ‘occulture’.” (Erik Davis at Techgnosis.com, bless him) Here you can find out about my books and music, discover links to some of my writings, and read comments people have made about my work. You can also find notices for my forthcoming books, and updates on my talks, lectures, interviews, and broadcasts. You can also leave your own comments, ask questions, provide answers, or simply say hello. As the cultural historian Jacques Barzun – currently defying entropy at 102 – remarked “The finest achievement of human society and its rarest pleasure is Conversation.” Who are we to contradict him? So please, join in.