Tag: counter culture

Recent events and some talks on the way

As many other people were, in recent weeks I was saddened by the terrible events in Ukraine. In my own case I can say that it was one of the few times when I was disappointed to have been proved right. How so? In my book The Return of Holy Russia I point out that Ukraine, and especially Kyiv, have a peculiar attraction for Vladimir Putin, and not only in the sense of his apparent aim to regain the “near abroad,” the lands lost to Russia with the breakup of the USSR. As I show in the book, Kyiv in the time of Kievan Rus’, was the birthplace of what we know as Russia, and it remains in the Russian cultural consciousness as a kind of Golden Age, what is called “the Lost Kingdom”, their equivalent, say, to the Arthurian legends. And in AD 989, when Vladimir I converted from Slavic paganism to Greek Orthodox Christianity, the Russians became the “Christ-bearing people,” a character that would later give rise to ideas of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” following the fall of the first and the loss of the second, Constantinople, to the Turks in 1453. Out of this came the notion of “Holy Russia,” a mantle that, cynically or not, Putin does seem to be gesturing to, in order to give the Russian people some sense of identity and purpose, something that seems to have eluded them since the economic free fall of the late 1990s. If nothing else, the sixty foot statue to Vladimir I he had erected just outside the Kremlin in 2015 suggests that the current Vladimir identifies more than a bit with his namesake.

When the book came out it drew some attention, mostly, it seemed, from readers interested in Russian Freemasonry, which I do write about – at least this was what I could tell when I saw that it had hit No. 1 in Freemasonry on amazon. Soon after Putin sent his troops across the border, I saw that the book was getting some attention again – I think it was No. 1 in Secret Societies this time. Although I can’t say I wasn’t pleased with this and didn’t mumble a sub-vocal “I told you so,” I was unhappy about the reason why. Not long after, David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom got in touch and asked if I would be up for talking about the book. Here is a link to that conversation. In it I refer to some material I go into in Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump that has quite a bit about Russia and the strange geopolitical ideas informing the Russian president.

I had an earlier conversation about Holy Russia with Jeffrey Mishlove, and here’s the link to that video.

And for a quick look on some of the people on Putin’s reading list, you can check out this short article on “The Philosopher Tsar.”

On a less troubling note, my latest book, Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity and Coincidence is now out in paperback and Kindle in the UK, and Kindle only until May 24 in the US.

I’ve done two interviews with Jeffrey Mishlove based on the book. One is devoted for the most part to dreaming; the other to time.

And I’ve done podcasts about the book with Aeon Byte , The Higherside Chats and Rune Soup.

On May 27 I’ll be continuing my series of lectures on a Short History of Occultism for the Last Tuesday Society with my segment on C.G. Jung, the mystic who masqueraded as a psychologist – or was that the other way around…

I’ve added some extra lectures to the series:

On May 12 I’ll be talking about my experiences with precognitive dreams, based on the new book.

On July 5 I’ll be talking about Rudolf Steiner: Spiritual Scientist

On August 23 we’ll be looking at the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius: The Occult Roots of the 1960s.

And on September 28 it’s Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and the Fourth Way.

On April 5 I will be making my first live appearance since last Halloween, at the London Fortean Society gathering at the Miller Pub in Borough. I will be talking about precognitive dreams and I can tell in advance that you will all be there…

On April 10 I will be talking about Dreaming Ahead of Time to Theosophical Society.

On April 25 I will be back in zoomland, speaking once again about my dreams – and yours – to the Science and Medical Network.

But in June, I will be joining Iain McGilchrist, John Pickering, Shantena Sabbadini, and other engaging speakers at the Pari Center in Tuscany, Italy, for a weeklong exploration of the idea of Re-Visioning Consciousness. I will be talking about my experiences with dreams, hypnagogia, synchronicity and other unordinary experiences and will do my best to put any participants to sleep during a workshop aimed at inducing these strange states.

I hope you can join me in some, if not all, of these events.

What’s On Its Way in 2022

Here are some talks on their way in the new year – one, I hope, that will be kind to us all.

January 11 I’ll be giving the first of three talks providing a Short History of Modern Occultism for the Last Tuesday Society. The opener is Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was one of the most remarkable and influential women of the nineteenth century, and the Theosophical Society, which she founded in NYC in 1875, profoundly shaped modern culture. And yes she was a deft hand at materialising all sorts of things, and studied occultism in a secret monastery in Tibet.

January 13 I’ll be on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking discussing my precognitive dreams with Matthew Sweet on a program devoted to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

January 16 I’ll be speaking to the Theosophical Society about the mysterious figure, Hermes Trismegistus, fabled founder of magic and philosophy, whose teachings influenced ancient thought, Christianity, the Renaissance, and the modern occult world. The talk will be based on my book The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus.

January 18 my online course on The History of Western Esotericism begins for the California Institute of Integral Studies. The course will follow my books The Secret Teachers of the Western World and The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. It isn’t open to the public; you need to be enrolled at CIIS to attend.

January 27 is the UK publication date for my new book Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity and Coincidence. In it I look at my experiences with “dreaming ahead of time,” – that is, of the future – over the past forty years, and how other “time haunted men,” such as J.W. Dunne, J.B. Priestley, Arthur Koestler, C.G. Jung, and others have tried to understand what must be the strangest paranormal phenomena of them all.

February 17 I’ll be giving an online talk for Watkins Bookshop about Dreaming Ahead of Time.

February 20 I’ll be discussing precognition and other odd things about dreams with Carl Abrahamson at Morbid Anatomy. It’s not up on their events page yet; when it is I will let you know.

March 8 I’ll be giving the second talk of my three part series A Brief History of Modern Occultism for the Last Tuesday Society. This time’s it’s everyone’s favourite bad boy, Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Magician in the World. Crowley did more in his rambunctious, super-sized life than most people do throughout all their incarnations. I’ll take the scenic route through his magical, sexual, drug and other excesses, providing a blow-by-blow account of how the Great Beast became the “man we’d like to hang!” If you want to prepare, you can read all about in my book Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World.

March 27 I’ll be winding up my Brief History of Modern Occultism with a look and the life and strange times of C. G. Jung, the Lord of the Underworld, who shared with Crowley a place among “those we like” on the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s album. More than anyone else in the 20th century, Jung re-introduced magical and mystical ideas about the human soul, through his profound exploration of the human psyche, mostly his own. Jung’s descent in the unconscious following his breakup with Freud led to his discovery of the Collective Unconscious, with its mysterious compelling archetypes. And his notion of synchronicity – “meaningful coincidence” – put magic on the psychological map. All is told in my book Jung the Mystic.

April 25 I’ll be telling my dreams again, this time to the Science and Medical Network.

June 25 I’ll be speaking about the paranormal life of C.G. Jung to the Guild of Pastoral Psychology, a talk based on my book Jung The Mystic.

June already. The year’s half gone. Funny thing, time.

A New Book – And Sex!

My new book, Dreaming Ahead of Time, about my experiences with precognitive dreams, synchronicity and coincidence, will be published by Floris Books this January. In it I look at some of the dreams I have been recording over the last forty years, in which bits and pieces of the future have turned up. How does this happen? Beats me, but I am as convinced that it does as I am about anything else. In the book I look at some of the ideas about precognitive dreams of earlier explorers, J. W. Dunne, J. B. Priestley, T. C. Lethbridge, and also at Ouspensky’s ideas of a “three dimensional time,” Jung’s synchronicity, some very remarkable coincidences, and Colin Wilson’s notion of Faculty X, which allows us to travel to “other times and places.” I have a premonition you will enjoy it

Here are some thoughts about sex that I’ve had to cut from a book I am working on. They seemed too interesting to leave in my files.

Sex and Imagination

By

Gary Lachman

In a book I’ve been working on recently, sex has turned up quite a bit. Here I’d like to spell out in some detail ideas and intuitions about it that, at least where the male of the species is considered, strike me as being of fundamental importance. This should not be surprising. Nietzsche once remarked that “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the topmost summit of his spirit.” What I hope to briefly explain here is exactly how that can be the case.

My analysis is based on the “phenomenology of the sexual impulse” carried out by the existential philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson. For readers not familiar with the term, phenomenology simply means a close observation and descriptive account of experience, of, that is, phenomena, whether they appear to our senses or to our mind. The tree that we see in the garden is a phenomenon; so is the one we see in our mind. Phenomenology is interested in how each of them “appear” to consciousness. There is, of course, a whole philosophical school based on the work of Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, with much lively debate about its aims and premises, but that needn’t concern us here. Fundamentally phenomenology is about observing and understanding our inner states. Put in the simplest terms, it is about paying attention to what is going on in your head. It is essentially a method of grasping the “structures” or processes making up our conscious experience, of becoming aware of the interior gestures, we could say, that allow for that experience to take place.

An example would be biting into an apple and enjoying the taste: that’s the experience. A phenomenological analysis of the experience would seek to grasp how it is that you enjoy it, what mental “acts” are involved in the enjoyment. The enjoyment is not in the apple, or at least not solely in it, because there are times when, for whatever reason, we don’t enjoy apples. So where is it? Listening to music is another example. We are carried away by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Then we decide to listen again and try to grasp how Mozart achieves his effect with such surety and simplicity, and not in musical terms, but in those of our own inner structure. This may spoil our enjoyment – it often doesn’t bear thinking about, hence the unpopularity of that pursuit – but we can come to understand it, and what mental acts we perform that enable us to enjoy it, acts of which we are usually unaware, that is, of which we are unconscious.

It may seem that our enjoyment of the music requires no acts at all: it simply happens. Husserl says no. At a level below your enjoyment, making it possible, your consciousness is reaching out to meet the music, as it were. If we are distracted, or bored, or something else “takes our mind away,” as we say, we no longer hear the music, although the CD may still be playing. The soundwaves may be hitting our ears, but the signal isn’t getting through. Our attention is elsewhere. The opposite experience happens when a piece of music we have heard countless times and that we think we know very well indeed suddenly sounds new and fresh, and we are surprised at the enjoyment we are receiving from it. How does this happen?

Husserl’s answer, and the basic premise of phenomenology, founded on empirical observation, is that our perception, our consciousness is intentional, although we are not immediately aware of this.[1] To put it simply, our consciousness does not merely reflect a world that is “already  there,” as a mirror reflects what happens to be in front of it. Consciousness reaches out and “grabs” the world, as our hands do the apple we have just bitten, and indeed, as our teeth do the apple as we bite it. It “intends” it. Its relationship to the world, to experience, isn’t passive, but active. I could extend this metaphor and say that we “digest” experience just as much as we do the apple. And just as we can have a weak or strong “grasp” on our experience, we can digest it well or badly too.

I say  “consciousness intends,” but what I really mean is that we do, my consciousness and your consciousness, but at a level below our surface awareness. That is why I think that when I bite into an apple and enjoy it, it “just happens.” It doesn’t. As Wilson writes, “there is a will to perceive as well as perceptions.” Most of the time we are unaware of this will; our acts of intentionality occur below our conscious awareness. We are usually only aware of our perceptions, not the will behind them. But there is one intentional act that we can become aware of, and it occurs in a heightened state of consciousness, one more intense than our usual passive state. This is the sexual impulse.

In a series of books written over several decades, Wilson developed what we can call a kind of “sexistentialism,” a phenomenological investigation of exactly what is behind the sexual impulse; what, that is, it “intends,” its aim.[2] Exactly what that aim is, was the question Wilson posed himself. Or, as he put it, he wanted to “be able to express the meaning-content of the sexual orgasm in words.”

When it comes to the orgasm, most men are satisfied with groans; and to them the answer to the question of what the sexual impulse aims at would be glaringly obvious, as obvious as a hungry man’s aim in having a meal before him. Wilson wanted to articulate the intentional structure of the sexual orgasm, and in doing so, he soon saw that the relation of the male sexual impulse to its object is almost nothing like that of a hungry man to a steak. What makes for a satisfactory sexual experience is far more subtle than what makes for a satisfying meal, although both can be enhanced with a bit of spice. Wilson’s conclusion was that, far from being driven by an insatiable libido, as Freud would have it, sex in human beings – male and female – has more to do with achieving states of intensified consciousness than with satisfying any animal appetite. That is, it has to do with our evolutionary drive, our inherent urge to grow. And that intensified consciousness, that growth,  is rooted in the imagination. Wilson anchors this point in the very observable fact that if we are hungry, an imaginary meal will not satisfy our appetite, nor will an imaginary drink satisfy our thirst. But an imaginary sex partner can satisfy our “sexual appetite” as much as – and often better than – a “real” partner can. This is why more than one writer on sex has remarked that masturbation can be a more gratifying means of sexual satisfaction than “real” sex.

For most of us, sex is the closest we get to anything like a mystical experience – if, of course, we are lucky: it is not absolutely reliable and there are no guarantees. But when it does work – and what we are looking at here is precisely why it does, when it does – it is an experience of tremendous power, beyond anything we experience in everyday life, what Nietzsche called “the Dionysian,” referring to the ancient Greek god of drunkenness, ecstasy, and abandon. Some of us are so impressed with this power that we spend our lives seeking it out, or at least seeking out the experience that enabled us to feel it. We call these men Don Juans or Casanovas. There are female equivalents, although the urge behind nymphomania is not the same as that behind the seduction addict. And of course, there is a whole body of literature relating to the spiritual and mystical aspects of sex, from Tantra to various other kinds of spiritualised sexuality. As Wilson writes, “The ‘origin of the sexual impulse’ is not the ‘libido’, “it is an intentionality that is not confined to sex alone, but that also projects the ‘meaning’ of man’s aesthetic and religious activities.”[3] This is why Wilson argues that the same “intentional act” that transforms a two dimensional image in a magazine into an object of intense sexual excitement – i.e. a centrefold – so that it can elicit the same physiological response as the “real thing,” is the same intentional act that allows us to enjoy Van Gogh’s Starry Night or to see the flower in the garden as beautiful.

Like sex, art and religion are other means of intensifying consciousness. What all three have in common is that they can temporarily lift us out of our everyday, ordinary consciousness, and make us aware of wider horizons of meaning and of deeper areas of our being, that are ordinarily obscured. Religion and art have always been associated with man’s higher nature, his values and ideals, with, we can say, his evolution into something more than an animal. Sex has rarely, if ever, shared this status, at least in the west.[4] In fact, it has more often been vilified as a regrettable remnant of our animal past, although in fact, human sexuality is as unlike that of animals as it could get; we do them and ourselves a disservice when we speak of “beastly lusts.”

Why?

Because as mentioned, sex in human beings has more to do with the imagination, with what is going on in the mind than in what is taking place in the genitals. Many of us are all too familiar with the fact that it is invariably the case that if the mind isn’t involved – if we aren’t “into it” – then it is easy for the genitals not to be too. As far as we can tell, there is little going on in the minds of animals as they mate; often enough the operation is over too quickly for them to have had any thoughts about it, were they were capable of having them. This is why the Russian religious existentialist philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev could say that “It is quite possible to say that man is a sexual being, but we cannot say that man is a food-digesting being.”[5]

Clearly, sex has to do with organs – penises and vaginas – in the same way that digestion does, but it isn’t limited to them as digestion is limited to our stomachs; it reaches beyond them to permeate our entire life. I love food as much as the next man – indeed, Bernard Shaw said there was no greater love -but I am unaware of any great works of art based on digestion; there is, I believe, no Romeo and Juliet, no Carmen or Tristan and Isolde inspired by an appetizing dinner. And we rarely have to be “into it,” in order to enjoy our meal; we simply have to have an appetite. Indeed we often read, watch television, or carry on a conversation while eating, in a way that we couldn’t while engaged in sex. And if our sex partner were so involved in some additional activity as these, it would, more than likely, put us off. With sex, there is a need to focus our consciousness in order to get its full benefits in the same way that an artist needs to focus his consciousness on his work and that we need to focus ours on his finished product when we stand before it in a gallery.

Because of this, Wilson argues that it is a mistake to see sex as a “low” or “base” drive, as Freud did, or as an annoying but unavoidable necessity for perpetuating the species, as the church does. The truth is that the drive behind sex is exactly the same as that behind the highest forms of human creativity. That is, it is a drive for greater consciousness.

How did Wilson arrive at this conclusion? From a study of sexual perversions – or I should say from becoming aware of the difficulty in determining what sexual behaviour counted as a perversion. This was – is- difficult because we don’t have a clear idea of exactly what constitutes “non-perverted sex.” Which is another way of saying that we don’t have a clear idea of what “normal sex” is, although we may think we do. For nature’s purposes, sex means offspring; that is, its aim is procreation, and for the most part, animals do not engage in many perversions about it. Clearly, humans mate in order to have children, but they do not mate only for that reason, and I think it is safe to say that most of the sex we engage in isn’t concerned with that at all; indeed we go out of our way to ensure that no progeny will result from our revels.[6] The Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev wrote a book, The Meaning of Love (1892), that rejected the utilitarian or Darwinian views of sex as a means of improving the race through selective breeding, and argued instead for its transformative power for the individuals concerned. Wilson agrees. The question he asked himself was “What part does sex play in man’s total being?,” to which we’ve seen replies from Nietzsche and Berdyaev.[7] But this only raises the question of what we mean by “man’s total being?” Wilson concluded that “the problems of sex and the problem of teleology (man’s ultimate purpose) are bound together, and neither can be understood in isolation.”[8]

But if offspring – bigger and better ones – aren’t the aim, or at least not the central one, of the sexual impulse, then what is? Wilson argues that the notion of “sexual fulfilment” is linked to what we perceive as the limits of “human nature,” limits that the sexual orgasm undeniably exceeds – hence its popularity. Its power suggests “an intuition of some deeper, more ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction for the individual.”[9] If this is the case then, as Wilson writes, “A satisfactory notion of ‘ultimate sexual satisfaction must be bound up with some larger mystical vision about the purpose of human existence.”[10]

The notion of some “ultimate sexual satisfaction” leads us into the realm of perversion because it is in quest of such satisfaction that perversions arise. If one was satisfied with the usual roll in the hay, they would not appeal. What do sexual perversions actually do? They act as a spice, making the ordinary, normal act more interesting, just as cayenne pepper puts a kick into your casserole. We know how a spice works on food. How does it work with sex? What exactly is the spice that is added?

For Wilson, it is “the forbidden.” “The major component of the sexual urge is the sense of sin – or, to express this more moderately, the sense of invading another’s privacy, of escaping one’s own separateness.” “The idea of the forbidden is essential in sex; without the sense of the violation of an alien being, sexual excitement would be weakened, or perhaps completely dissipated.” “Sex can never, on any level, be ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. It always depends on the violation of taboos – or, as Baudelaire would have said, on the sense of sin.”[11] And as Wilson points out, “the forbidden” is an idea and needs to be grasped by the mind, by, that is, the imagination. You need to know you are breaking the rules in order to get the kick out of breaking them.

Yet, in our time, this requires a certain amount of self-deception. Why is it that now, in the twenty-first century, when we all know sex is just a normal part of life and that there is really nothing “wicked” about it, we nevertheless still talk of being “naughty” and having a “dirty weekend,” and of acting out some of our kinky “secret desires?” Escort services cater to this frisson of “transgression,” offering a variety of fantasies in which the client can indulge in a spectrum of “forbidden” activities from fairly standard perversions like sodomy and oral sex, which are by now more or less mainstream, to sadism, masochism, and more acquired tastes such as urophagia (drinking urine) and coprophagia (eating faeces), to any number of role-playing sex games involving nuns, schoolgirls, even aliens. The fetishism that drives these forbidden acts is itself proof that the main element in sexual satisfaction is the imagination, for what else bestows the seemingly magical power of evoking considerable sexual excitement on ordinarily non-sexual items such as a raincoat, an umbrella, or an apron, to name just a few? And I should point out that the same intentional act that animates these otherwise ordinary items and transforms them into objects of sexual excitement is the same intentional act that makes you “into” the sex you are having with your partner. In this sense, even a real partner is a fetish – and those who understand this remark have understood the point I am trying to make.

Yet, as Wilson points out, these spices soon lose their savour, or rather, we soon grow used to them and require something a little more spicy to get the same kick. Readers of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom are soon weary of the spices he provides, heaping them up on each page, and which fairly soon have very little to do with sex and more to do with providing any kind of shock possible. And what exactly is the kick? It is a sudden vivid awareness of the reality we have let slip from our mental grasp, which in this context is the sexual act. (And it is the same reality that we catch glimpses of in aesthetic, mystical, and ‘peak’ experiences.) That is, it is increased, intensified consciousness. This is why some couples install mirrors in their bedroom, so that they can see themselves in the act. (These days perhaps they take selfies…) The spices – or perversions – serve as “alarm clocks,” to take a metaphor from Gurdjieff, that “wake us up,” reviving our flagging consciousness so that, if only for a brief moment or two, we feel that “intuition of some deeper, more ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction” in the throes of the orgasm. The sense of the forbidden, the prospect of something unknown and new tightens the mind, unifies our being and gives us a taste of what human consciousness should be like, but which we feel now only rarely, if at all. It is this unity of being that is the object of the sexual impulse. And as Wilson has pointed out in his many studies of the psychology of murder, some individuals so lack it that it is only in the most brutal acts of violence that they can feel some sense of it.

It is that tightening, that focus, that concentration, that is the source of the ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction – not the spice, whatever it may be. But the devotees of perversions – those with a jaded palate in need of heavily spiced food – do not grasp this, and rather than discipline themselves to achieve this focus through their own efforts, believe their “ultimate sexual satisfaction” will come through ratcheting up their intake of spices yet one more notch, oblivious to the law of diminishing returns inherent in the procedure. For just as a drug addict needs stronger and stronger doses of his poison in order to feel any effect, the sexually perverted – in the sense we are speaking of perversions – need greater and greater stimulants to “get it up.”

Yet achieving that focus through one’s own efforts, and not being reliant on the stimulus of the “forbidden,” would not only make sex more exciting, that is more real, but everything else too.


[1] The interested reader may wish to consult Herbert Spiegelberg’s classic The Phenomenological Movement (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976). To get an idea of Wilson’s approach to phenomenology see Colin Wilson Introduction to the New Existentialism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967)

[2] See Origins of the Sexual Impulse (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963), Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (London: Rupert-Hart-Davis, 1972),  and The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (London: Grafton, 1988). Wilson has also used the novel as a means of exploring his ideas about sexuality: Ritual in the Dark (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2020); Man Without a Shadow (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2013; and The God of the Labyrinth (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2013). For a summary of Wilson’s ideas about sex, see my Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016) pp. 105-08.

[3] Colin Wilson Origins of the Sexual Impulse (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963) p. 239.

[4] In the east it is a different matter, as the Christian missionaries who encountered religious sculptures depicting explicit sexual acts on Hindu temples discovered.

[5] Nicolai Berdyaev The Meaning of the Creative Act (New York: Collier’s, 1962) p. 168.

[6] From the procreation point of view, one could argue that any number of perversions would be acceptable and ‘normalised’ if in the end, sperm entered the womb and fertilised an egg. It would also seem to legitimise rape.

[7] Wilson 1963 p. 15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p. 96.

[10] Ibid. P. 98.

[11] Ibid. pp. 147, 155, 247.

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.

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.