Tag: counter culture

Learning the Lost Knowledge

Next month and into early December, I’ll be giving a three week live online course at Nura Learning, based on my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. The course will cover material from that book, as well as from The Secret Teachers of the Western World and A Secret History of Consciousness. With all these secrets and lost knowledge available to us, we should be able to have an interesting time.

You can find a description of the class, some ideas of what it will cover, and other useful information at the Nura Learning site.  Here’s a preview. See you there perhaps.

 

When we hear the word “imagination,” what do we think? Mostly we tend to see the imagination as a substitute for reality, as a form of wishful thinking, a pleasant alternative to the hard facts of life. Or we see it as a way of developing novel ideas, of being on the “cutting edge” of technology, a way of making things “bigger and better.”

But this is not the only way to understand the imagination. For poets and scholars like Kathleen Raine, Henry Corbin, Owen Barfield and others, the imagination is not a substitute for reality, but a means of grasping its essence. For them, imagination isn’t a form of “make believe,” but a faculty of cognition, a way of knowing things that would otherwise remain unknown.

This knowledge was accessible at earlier times, but in recent centuries it has been minimized, if not vigorously rejected, by our emphasis on “hard,” “scientistic” thinking. This course will look at imagination as a faculty for grasping the invisible realities that surround us, and at the tradition of knowledge rooted in it. A tradition that, if lost, can still be recovered.

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Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona in May of this year, on the links between art and the occult. As I point out in the talk, this connection goes far back into our past and seems to have been on hand when human consciousness first arose out of its animal roots and became aware of itself and the strange world in which it had awoken. From there I chart some of the main points of contact between the artist and the occultist or magician, until we arrive at our own recent re-discovery of the occult by artists bored to tears with postmodern irony and apathy and the self-censoring requirements of producing work that is socially useful. One expression of this search for something more than ironic self-reflection or social utility is what has come to be known as “occulture,” and at the end of the talk I mention some current efforts to get this across to a, with any luck, eager audience. Here is a link to my talk. And here it is in pixels.

Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

In recent years the occult, the mystical, and the magical have become popular subjects in the art world, but the links between art and the occult reach back much further than we think. The earliest signs of art appear at the very start of our humanity, and even then it was associated with other worlds. 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic, humans like ourselves used art as a means of entering other realms and as a way of recording what they encountered there. Cave art found in places like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain suggest that our prehistoric ancestors used these interior spaces to enter another “inner” world, that of the mind, or, as they more likely would have thought of it, the spirits.

While in trance states – most likely induced by psychedelic substances – prehistoric artists made cave paintings depicting the strange half-animal, half-human creatures they encountered, what are known as “therianthropic figures.” Some theorists suggest these cave paintings later became symbols prehistoric psychonauts meditated on while within these deep spaces.[1] As the hallucinogens altered their consciousness, our ancient ancestors performed rituals and offered prayers to the spirits evoked through the images on the walls. Like later shamans, these early visionaries returned from their inner journeys with helpful knowledge gleaned from the other side. It seems that from the start, the insight that “in art it is necessary to study ‘occultism’” and that the artist “must be clairvoyant; he must see that which others do not see” – as the esoteric philosopher P. D. Ouspensky, whose writings influenced Russian avant-garde artists like Kasimir Malevich and Mikhail Matiushin declared – was in full force.[2]

Architecture in its earliest forms was also concerned with realities beyond the everyday. The earliest dating for the construction of Stonehenge, the most famous megalithic site, is 3100 BC. While perhaps not strictly “art,” the precision with which the enormous stone slabs making up Stonehenge are arranged induces an unquestioned aesthetic effect, which must have played a part in whatever other purposes the site may have served. Many theories suggest why our Neolithic ancestors erected these gigantic blocks, some of which weigh up to twenty-five tons, ranging from the needs of human sacrifice to a landing base for UFOs. Yet many researchers agree that, like other megalithic sites, these massive stones were placed with an accuracy modern engineers would find difficult to match, in order to chart the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Yet these astronomical calendars were not erected simply to record the change of seasons. As the writer Colin Wilson suggests, our ancient ancestors seem to have had some intuitive awareness of a kind of energy coming from the heavens and the earth itself, and they constructed Stonehenge in order to mark the times when this mysterious occult power was most present.[3]

Later, more sophisticated structures, like the great pyramids of Giza, seem to have been made with a similar aim, and suggest that whoever was responsible for them had a knowledge of astronomy and earth science far in advance of what conventional thought allows. There is considerable evidence that during their construction the pyramids served as observatories and that the accuracy with which they were able to pinpoint distant stars had more to do with ideas about the afterlife than with the demands of agriculture. While it is clear that later pyramids did serve as tombs, nothing about the great pyramids of Giza suggests they served as monumental mausoleums. There is reason to believe they served as initiatory temples, within which priests mastered the art of separating the soul from the body, so that it could begin its journey to the stars.[4] The very shape and contours of these spaces are believed to have been designed in order to create specific states of consciousness.

The pyramids are thought to contain much esoteric, occult knowledge. This is perhaps even more true of the Sphinx, which some believe predates the pyramids by millennia. According to the 20th century spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, the Sphinx is an example of “objective art,” which is designed to have the same precise effect on every viewer, unlike our more “subjective” art, which aims to express an idea or feeling of the artist, and about which the individual viewer can decide for himself.[5] We do not know who constructed the Sphinx or who is responsible for the strange sensation it still produces in those who stand before it. The same is true of the nameless stone masons and carvers who built the Gothic cathedrals.

In a highly competitive market, it is important for artists to have their name known. This was not the case during the rise of the Gothic (AD 1150-1220). Artists then did not ascribe their work to themselves; they rather lost their “selves” in the service of something greater. Some have suggested that those responsible for the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris belonged to esoteric “schools,” part of whose work was to embody in stone occult secrets about man, God, and the cosmos.[6] According to the mysterious 20th century alchemist Fulcanelli, the bas-reliefs, decorations, images, and icons depicted on the stones of Gothic masterpieces, speak the strange language of argotigue, which communicates alchemical secrets to those who can read it, and hides them from those who cannot.[7] As in the great Egyptian structures, one can detect the effect of “sacred geometry” in these holy places, the conscious use of the Golden Section and other significant measurements, derived from ancient sages like Pythagoras and Plato. When combined with the vivid stained glass of their enormous rose windows and early polyphonic music, the otherworldly effect within places like Chartres must have been transformative, sending their congregations into communal altered states.

In the sense that we know it, art comes into its own in the Renaissance. Here too we find the influence of the occult. The Renaissance was, of course, about rediscovering the works of ancient sages like Plato, lost for centuries. But as the historian Frances Yates makes clear in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, the Renaissance was even more about the rediscovery of the works of the most famous magician of all time, Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice greatest Hermes.” In 1463, a book scout for the Florentine power broker Cosimo de’ Medici came across a collection of Hermetic texts, believed to have been written by the great magician himself. Marsilio Ficino, Cosimo’s scribe, was busily translating some lost works of Plato when Cosimo pulled him away to work on Hermes instead. The result was a remarkable infusion of Hermetic and occult ideas into the burgeoning Renaissance genius. This can be seen in Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) the painting of which Yates suggests was directed by Ficino and which she describes as a “practical application of magic, a complex talisman.”[8] Sculpture too was informed with the Hermetic vision; as Yates writes: “The operative magi of the Renaissance were the artists and it was a Donatello or a Michelangelo who knew how to infuse the divine life into statues.”[9]

By the early seventeenth century, through an intolerant church and a rising modern science, the Hermetic teachings, hitherto respected, had lost much of their prestige. Yet this was a time when occult art flourished, in illustrated alchemical texts and “maps” of the hidden worlds, what was known as “hyperphysical cartography.” These complex diagrams made of colourful concentric circles, triangles, text, and striking illustrations depicted the secret relations between the physical and spiritual worlds. Alchemical works were crowded with red dragons, green lions, hermaphrodites, suns, moons and other strange symbols, many of which Surrealism would later borrow, conveying to the initiated the inner workings of nature. One of the most remarkable of these works was Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugens (Atalanta Fleeing) which appeared in 1618 and is an early example of multi-media, combining poetry, images, and music to convey the alchemical meaning of the ancient Greek myth.

As science and rationalism drove the Enlightenment on, many artists, wary of the new clockwork universe, rebelled and turned instead to the strange, the unusual, and the uncanny. The new ordered world seemed cold and barren, and they sought inspiration in the mysterious and in visions of a more romantic past. The Gothic revival bred a taste for ruins and desolate places, and for the darker side of human nature. The supernatural, left out of the Enlightenment agenda, was a favourite theme, and Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) expresses the fascination with the hidden, repressed, occulted self. Fuseli was one of many artists, writers and thinkers making up the “occult underworld” of late eighteenth century London; another was Fuseli’s friend, the poet, painter, and visionary William Blake, who himself attended séances.[10] Blake, an engraver, was practically unknown as a poet and painter during his lifetime. Yet Blake’s paintings, full of Michelangelesque men and women and bursting with vibrant vital forms and colours, are now treasured and are recognized, along with his poetry, as expressions of his spiritual, Hermetic vision. As Kathleen Raine points out, Blake was not an untutored “mad” genius. He was well schooled in the Hermetic philosophy, and as is the case with many Renaissance masterpieces, his striking paintings, engravings, and illuminated texts – another example of mixed media – are filled with symbols and images relating to the esoteric tradition.[11]

In the nineteenth century the Romantic rejection of the rising modern world spread across Europe and took root very firmly in Germany, as the eerie otherworldly paintings of Caspar David Friedrich show. Friedrich’s haunting landscapes, depicted in almost hallucinatory detail, leave the viewer with the sense of some other world, shimmering behind nature’s surface. This suggestion of a different reality, just out of reach, would inform the Symbolism that emerged as the century drew on. Rooted in the visions of the Swedish scientist and religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and his belief in a correspondence between the things of this world and the realities of a higher one, Symbolism informed the literature, art, and music of the time, reaching into Baudelaire’s poetry, Wagner’s operas, and the work of painters like Gustav Moreau and Odilon Redon. Orpheus, the poet-mystic of Greek legend, who descends into the underworld, was a favourite subject of Moreau’s lush, exotic works. Redon’s dark visions are best seen in his illustrations for Gustav Flaubert’s hallucinatory novel The Temptations of Saint Anthony (1874).

Redon was a familiar face in the mystical underground of fin-de-siècle Paris, where he rubbed elbows with other artists interested in the occult, such as the composers Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, the poet Stéphan Mallarmé, and the novelist J. K. Huysmans, whose Là-Bas (1891) is a classic of decadent Satanism. Important at this time was the occultist “Sar” Merodack Péladan, who initiated the famous Salon de la Rose-Croix, where, in 1892, Satie premiered his Trois Sonneries de la Rose +Croix. It was in this milieu that René Guénon, the founder of Traditionalism, and René Schwaller de Lubicz, the maverick Egyptologist and alchemist, began their careers. Inspiring the fin-de-siècle obsession with the occult were the thrilling works of the French magician Eliphas Levi, himself a skilled draughtsman, whose readers included Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and many others. In Dogme de la Haute Magie (1854) Levi argued that the most powerful weapon in a magician’s arsenal was his imagination, an insight that later magicians, like the notorious Aleister Crowley, no stranger to the canvas himself, developed considerably.[12]

Ironically it was in the stridently “modern” twentieth century that art’s links to the occult really came into their own. In 1912 Wassily Kandinsky published On the Spiritual in Art (1912), a work predicting a coming “Epoch of the Great Spiritual.” Influenced by his reading in Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner, Kandinsky saw art as a spiritual counterblast to the increasing materialism of the age. Kandinsky was not alone. Other important modernists, like Frantisek Kupka and Piet Mondrian were also inspired by their reading in Theosophy. Where Symbolism suggested another world, somehow hovering behind this one, Kandinsky and the others saw art as a means of entering that world itself, of reaching directly into the higher dimensions. Kandinsky is credited with having created the first abstract painting, but that distinction may really belong to an artist who was unknown at the time, but whose work, because of the recent interest in “occult art,” has come to light.

This was Hilma Af Klint, a Swedish student of theosophy and anthroposophy who is believed to have created an abstract work earlier than Kandinsky. One reason af Klint’s importance has been noted only relatively recently is that she did not exhibit her esoteric art in her lifetime, and asked that it not be shown to the public until twenty-five years after her death. When it was finally shown, more time than that had passed. Another is that, perhaps even more than Kandinsky, af Klint’s paintings were a means of entering into and exploring another level of reality.

Af Klint started out as a conventional painter, but her deeper interests were anything but conventional. Along with spiritualism, mediumship, automatic writing and painting, and other occult, mystical practices, she was also a student of Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. Working with other female artists also interested in the spiritual worlds, af  Klint produced automatic works inspired by higher intelligences, that predate Surrealism by decades, and produced “abstract” paintings in advance, as said, of Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian. But her interest in abstract art for its own sake was negligible. Her paintings were more overtly works of  gnosis than art. That is, they were ways of knowing reality, of entering spiritual worlds and seeing the invisible. But in these areas these pursuits more often than not overlap. And for the esoteric artist, art is a way of knowing.

Hilma af Klint came to the attention of a wider public in 1986 when her work received its first major showing as part of the ground breaking exhibition,  The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and which I had the great fortune to attend. Curated by Maurice Tuchman, the exhibition filled the museum’s new wing with more than 200 works displaying in a variety of ways the influence that occult, mystical, and spiritual ideas had on modern art.[13] We can say that it was the mother of all “art and the occult” exhibitions, and that this one, here today, has its roots in that exhibition, more than thirty years ago.

Another female occult artist whose work has been rediscovered, mostly through the interest shown in af Klint, is Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884). Throughout the 1860s and ‘70s, Houghton produced a series of remarkable “spirit paintings,” nearly abstract water colours guided by angelic intelligences, as well as by some of the Renaissance masters. Houghton was a well-known medium in Victorian spiritualist circles, but her attempt to spread the acceptance of spiritualist art was a disaster – her exhibition in 1871 left her bankrupt – and like af Klint, she withdrew her work from public showing, although it is now getting much belated attention.[14]

A more successful, at least at first, occult artist was the Londoner Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956), who burst on the English art scene as an enfant terrible of the Edwardians, having received acclaim at seventeen in 1903 as the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Yet Spare’s celebrity was soon overshadowed by his interest in the occult, magic, and strange, liminal states of consciousness, and he quickly slipped into obscurity.[15] He developed an art of Beardsleyesque delicacy and magical power, creating an original system of sigils and occult signs, aimed at contacting other planes. Among his many occult influences was witchcraft, a muse he shared with the Australian painter Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979), whose pagan, demonic canvases are often similar to Spare’s.

Spare was for a short time an associate of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) , mentioned earlier, the most notorious magician of the twentieth century, whose ideas influenced Norton and practically every occult artist that followed. Crowley himself painted, and in recent years his crude, disturbing work – like Spare and Norton, Crowley incorporates much transgressive sex in his occultism –  has garnered much attention and been exhibited widely.[16] And with Crowley we enter a realm of occult art in which the distinction between magic and art, ritual and performance, always flexible, becomes practically non-existent, an in-between sphere known as “occulture.”

The roots of occulture, like that of most art movements, reach back in various directions, but we can say that one sure source for it was the remarkable resurgence of widespread popular occult interest that made up the “occult revival of the 1960s.”  World War I had put an end to fin-de-siècle occultism. Interest in spirituality and the occult rose again in the post-war years and we can even see the 1920s as a kind of ‘golden age of modern esotericism,’ with many of its major figures all operating at the same time. And, as I briefly mentioned, Surrealism had more than a passing interest in the occult, André Breton himself being especially fascinated by the Tarot. But by the ‘dirty thirties’ and World War II, attention had turned elsewhere.

Yet by the late 1950s, interest in magic, witchcraft, the paranormal, and especially UFOs, began to spread. The Beat poets of San Francisco and New York had discovered the wisdom of the East, in the form of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the novels of Hermann Hesse. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider sent many off on existential quests. And in 1960, a book appeared in France that sparked an international magical revival. The Morning of the Magicians was a bestseller in France, and repeated its success in its English and other translations. Devoted to alchemy, ancient civilizations, extra-terrestrials , occult Nazis, mutants, and dozens of other strange ideas, in the Paris of Jean Paul Sartre and l’engagement it was as if a flying saucer had landed at the Café Deux Magots. A flood of books, films, television shows, and comic books, all riding on the occult wave dominated the popular culture of the time. By the middle of the decade, ideas that had been of interest to only a fringe segment of society, were now being embraced by the most famous people in the world, the Beatles. The rise in popularity of mind-altering substances like cannabis, magic mushrooms, and most influentially, LSD, seemed to confirm that a strange shift had happened, a return to ancient wisdom, smack in the middle of the modern age. It seemed that as man put his footprint on the moon, a new age of harmony and understanding was beginning on earth.

Yet by the early 1970s, that vision had faded and the dream dissolved. A grimmer sensibility settled in, a harder take on reality, a blacker shade of dark, that was reflected in popular culture. This was beginning of what we can call “dark rock,” the occult inspired current of heavy metal, and the more sophisticated enchantments of artists like David Bowie, who, like others, sought a golden dawn. And it was out of this in-between world, where art and magic meet, that occulture was born.

Allegedly coined by the performance artist/occultist Genesis P-Orridge in the 1980s, and associated with the high randomness of “chaos magick,” the portmanteau “occulture” gained academic credibility in 2004 when Professor Christopher Partridge defined it as a concern with “hidden, rejected and oppositional beliefs and practices associated with esotericism, theosophy, mysticism, New Age, Paganism,” and other ideas belonging to the “occult subculture.”[17] This elucidating mouthful reminds us that an academic discovery of the occult – or rediscovery, as  many pre-Enlightenment scholars were well acquainted with it – coincides with its recent artistic reassessment. This has led to scholars, artists, and practitioners rubbing magical elbows at such events as the conference on “The Occult and the Humanities” held in 2013 by the art department of New York University and which featured artists, mages, and academics deliberating on the place of the occult in today’s culture.[18]

As you might expect, occulture covers a wide spectrum, ranging from the diaphanous watercolours of the contemporary Swedish artist Fredrik Söderberg, to the more aggressive displays of the Swiss mixed-media artist Fabian Marti.[19] It’s roots lie in earlier occult artists such as the Crowleyan filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and the equally Crowleyan actress and painter Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) , in the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs Jr. (1914-1997) and Bryon Gysin (1916-1986), the magical cinema of Alejandro Jodorowksy and the dark “roccult and roll” of Orridge’s Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth and similar acts.[20] Like most esoteric terms, occulture is open for multiple interpretation, and we should not expect it to sit quietly with any single one. According to the “subcultural entrepreneur” Carl Abrahamsson, we should see occulture as a “general term for anything cultural yet decidedly occult/spiritual,” a brief that certainly covers a lot of ground, and allows artists to explore something other than their deadpan apathy –as postmodernism demands – and gives occultists a new way to look at their interests.[21]

If nothing else, occulture has stirred up a lot of action, at least in the English speaking world, from lavishly produced publications such as Fulgur Esoterica’s Abraxas: International Journal for Esoteric Studies, Abrahamsson’s Fenris Wolf, Mark Pilkington’s Strange Attractor Journal, and William Kiesel’s Clavis: Journal of Occult Art, Letters, and Experience, to collectable texts from Scarlet Imprint, Jerusalem Press, and the Ouroboros Press. And there are the conferences, seminars, symposia, book launches, lectures, exhibitions and events, much like this one, that proliferate like errant spirits, let loose by some sorcerer’s apprentice. For something unseen, it seems pretty clear that the occult, at least in the art world, is getting a lot of attention.

[1] David Lewis-Williams The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002)

[2] P. D. Ouspensky Tertium Organum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) p. 133.

[3] Colin Wilson Starseekers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980) pp. 26-27.

[4] See, for example, Jeremy Naydler, Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt (Oxford, UK: Abzu Press, 2005).

[5] P. D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949) p. 27.

[6] Rodney Collin The Theory of Celestial Influence (London: Watkins Books, 1980) p. 241.

[7] Fulcanelli Le Mystère des Cathédrals (Las Vegas, Nev. Brotherhood of Life, 2005) p. 42.

[8] Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971) p. 77

[9] Ibid. p. 104.

[10] For a vivid account of this time see Marsha Keith Schuchard Why Mrs. Blake Cried (London: Century, 2006).

[11] Kathleen Raine William Blake (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970).

[12] For some interesting articles on Crowley’s paintings, see Abraxas International Journal of Esoteric Studies issue 3 Spring 2013 pp. 43-83.

[13] For more on the link between art and the occult, see my article “Kandinsky’s Thought Forms: The Occult Roots of Modern Art” at https://www.theosophical.org/publications/1405

[14] http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/georgiana-houghton-spirit-drawings

[15] See Phil Baker Austin Osman Spare The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2011).

[16] See Abraxas: International Journal of Esoteric Studies Issue 3 Spring 2013 for several interesting articles on Crowley’s painting.

[17] Quoted in Here to Go: Art, Counter Culture, and the Esoteric ed. Carl Abrahamson (Stockholm: Edda Publishing, 2012) p. 7.

[18] See my article “Occulture Vultures” in Fortean Times No. 310 January 2014 pp. 56-57.

[19] See my Introduction to Söderberg’s Haus C G Jung (Stockholm: Edda Publishing, 2013), a collection of water colours based on Jung’s home and my contribution to Fabian Marti and Cristina Ricupero’s Cosmic Laughter No. 1 Time-Wave Zero, Then What? (Berlin: Sternberg Press, Ursula Blickle Stiftung, 2012).

[20] My books Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (New York: Disinformation Company, 2003) and Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World (New York; Tarcher/Penguin, 2014) explore the influence of the occult, particularly Crowley, on popular culture.

[21] Carl Abrahamson Resonances (London: Scarlet Imprint, 2014) p. 156.

Dark Star Rising

Yesterday I submitted the manuscript of my new book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, to Mitch Horowitz, my editor at Tarcher/Perigee. Mitch must like it, at least that’s how I read his tweet about it. It’s a report on the strange “occult politics” that seems to have come out of the shadows with the recent US presidential election, and which I discovered has been at work in Russia for some years prior to this. Researching it I came upon some odd pairings, between “positive thinking” and chaos magick, Traditionalism and a resurgent Russia, and a cartoon frog and postmodernism, to name a few. The book will be out next year. In the meantime you can look forward to The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination which will be available in the fall. In a sense Dark Star Rising begins where Lost Knowledge ends.

Criminal Outsiders

Steven Greenleaf has written a very insightful review of my first book, a collection of  essays on Wilsonian themes that Colin Stanley at Paupers’ Press took a chance on publishing back in 1994, unambiguously entitled Two Essays on Colin Wilson. It is somewhat humbling to recognize that one’s juvenilia was written in one’s late thirties – but then I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer, at least in terms of writing. Some encouragement, perhaps, to others who have put off getting their thoughts down on paper – or a computer screen – until their later years. Some of the material on William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller later found a home in Turn Off Your Mind and originally started life as an essay for a film class when I was working an a soon-to-be-aborted Ph.D in English Literature at USC. My professor thought my criticism of Burroughs etc was “vitiated by moral snipping” – remarkable what we remember. I doubt if the professor, Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, remembers it though.

The Outsider Goes On

Here’s a brief report on some current Colin Wilson related activities:

I recently sent the text to my talk “Colin Wilson and the Angry Young Outsiders,” given at the British Museum last October as part of the Folk Horror Revival Event, to be included in a book of the proceedings of the day. I hope the editor will be able to include some of the photographs I used in my lecture, especially the one from the Life magazine photo-shoot re-enacting Wilson’s days sleeping on Hampstead Heath.

Speaking of proceedings, Cambridge Scholars has announced that it will be publishing the Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference  on June 1 2017. The conference was held last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Outsider’s publication. Colin Stanley, Wilson’s bibliographer and the editor in chief of Paupers’ Press – which specializes in Wilson studies – has edited an eclectic collection of Wilsonian essays on a wide range of topics and produced a handsome volume. My own contribution was a talk on Faculty X. It’s pricey. But pester your local university library into getting a copy.

On May 11 2017 I’ll be giving a talk on “Colin Wilson: The Outsider and Beyond” as part of the Brighton Festival. I’ll be focusing on the books that came after The Outsider, such as Religion and the Rebel and the others making up Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’. This was his attempt to work out a new, positive existentialism, that could find a way out of the cul-de-sac old existentialists, like Heidegger, Sartre and Camus had found themselves in.

And finally, I am just now working on an Introduction to a new Paupers’ Press re-issue of Wilson’s rare collection of essays, Eagle and Earwig. Here Wilson applies his ‘existential criticism’ to writers like Ayn Rand, Robert Musil, David Lindsay – author of the marvelous A Voyage to Arcturus – and the sadly forgotten L. H. Myers, whose The Near and the Far is one of the best ‘novel of ideas’ written in the twentieth century. I’ve suggested to Colin Stanley that he should bring Eagle and Earwig out in a Paupers’ Press edition many times, and I am glad to see that he has taken my advice.

Who Will Save Us From the Saviors?

Here is my review of a recent book that, to my mind, offers a questionable solution to an undeniably pressing problem. We need to ensure that our cures are not worse than our afflictions. My thanks to Quest Magazine for posting the review, which originally appeared in their Winter 2017 issue.

 

How Soon Is Now? From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation
Daniel Pinchbeck
London: Watkins, 2017. 232 pp., hardcover, $24.95.

In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.

He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.

Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.

An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.

This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.

Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.

We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.

Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.

And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.

I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.

This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.

The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.

One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.

Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.

Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.

Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.