Tag: Gary Lachman

Recent talks, and a forgotten teacher

Here are some links to some talks I’ve given in recent months.

A Secret History of Consciousness, a three part series of lectures for the Theosophical Society, based on my book A Secret History of Conscious

In Part One: The Search for Cosmic Consciousness, I look at some contemporary scientific views about consciousness, and contrast these with the experiences of R.M. Bucke, William James, P.D. Ouspensky and others with what they called “cosmic consciousness.” How cosmic was it? Find out.

In Part Two: Esoteric Evolution, I trace a counter-tradition of evolutionary thought, beginning with Madame Blavatsky’s critique of Darwin, and leading to Rudolf Steiner’s strange union of theosophical cosmology and Goethean epistemology.

In Part Three The Presence of Origin, I give an overview of the life and work of the German-Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, whose ideas about the “structures of consciousness” offer important insights into our contemporary post-everything world.

Here’s a video of a symposium on the Swedish mystic and artist Hilma Af Klint that I contributed to some years ago at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2013.

A cheery conversation about death.

A talk about Owen Barfield.

The “forgotten teacher” mentioned above is Maurice Nicoll, who taught the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky Work in England for many years in the first half of the last century. Nicoll started out as the leading British disciple of Jung, but after meeting Ouspensky in late 1921, he switched his allegiance to the Fourth Way. Nicoll spent a year at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, and on his return to London continued his studies under Ouspensky. In 1931, he was deputised to teach the Work himself, which he did until his death in 1953. He is most known for his exhaustive Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and for his books The New Man, The Mark, – which deal with an “esoteric” reading of the Gospels – and Living Time, which marked him as, in J.B. Priestley’s words, a “time-haunted man.” He was also the author of the first book on Jung’s psychology written in English, Dream Psychology. Nicoll was also a deep reader of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, and those familiar with Swedenborg’s, and Jung’s, ideas, will be aware of their presence in the later volumes of Nicoll’s Commentaries.

I have been asked to write a book about Nicoll, a sympathetic but critical study to complement the portraits of him left by some of his followers. A Go Fund Me page has been set up, asking support for this project. Readers of this blog know that I’ve written books about Jung, Ouspensky, and Swedenborg, and that Gurdjieff often turns up in my other books. I’ve written an article about Nicoll, published in Quest magazine a few years back, that should explain why he is important. The fact that he had Jung, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky for teachers is enough to make him unique among modern seekers of wisdom. But that he introduced Jungian and Swedenborgian ideas into a Fourth Way teaching makes him an unusual instructor in that tradition. Nicoll was also keenly interested in the latest developments in science, in the work of Erwin Schrodinger, and the early findings in split-brain psychology, which was just beginning to get started toward the end of Nicoll’s life. Gurdjieff had entrusted Nicoll with the task of bringing the science of the west and the wisdom of the east into some creative union and in his last days he began to do just that.

Nicoll has been served well by his earlier biographers, Beryl Pogson and Sam Copley, but they were students and understandably biased toward their teacher. A recent discovery of a 1000+ page set of Nicoll’s diaries, covering crucial times in his life, also makes a new, non-partisan study of his life and work timely. Among other things, Nicoll’s diaries show a man struggling to find some way of life, some discipline, that could help him to unify and harmonise what for him were two mutually powerful but often antithetical drives, toward the spirit and toward the senses, toward the inner life of the soul, and the outer one of the body. A short video of an interview with me about Nicoll and why he deserves a new look can be found at the Go Fund Me page.

A Season of Consciousness

Here’s a round up of some upcoming talks for spring and summer. One hopes that sometime soon they can take place in real time, but until then, we must zoom – which, of course, doesn’t mean that I will lecture at a breakneck speed…

On 24 April I will be speaking about Owen Barfield, consciousness and language, for the Santa Cruz branch of the Anthroposophical Society. Barfield was the great friend of C.S. Lewis, one of the Inklings – along with Lewis and Tolkien – and a follower of Rudolf Steiner. But he was also a brilliant thinker in his own right, and I will be speaking about how in the history of language, Barfield discerned an evolution of consciousness. If you are interested in getting some background to the talk, I write about Barfield in A Secret History of Consciousness and Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Starting 13 June, and continuing on 27 June and 11 July, I will be giving a three-part series of talks for the Theosophical Society in London based on my book A Secret History of Consciousness.

Part 1, The Search for Cosmic Consciousness, looks at the limits of the “nothing but” school of consciousness studies, and at the work of R.M. Bucke, William James, P.D. Ouspensky and others in their quest to expand the field of human consciousness so that it can encompass the cosmos.

Part 2, Esoteric Evolution, looks at the influence of Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophy on Rudolf Steiner, and how, by grafting elements from German Idealism and the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great poet and scientist, onto Blavatsky’s Theosophy, Steiner developed a suggestive philosophy of consciousness.

Part 3, The Presence or Origin, looks at the work of Jean Gebser, a little know philosopher and spiritual thinker whose ideas about the “structures of consciousness” and the “breakdown” of our current “mental-rational” structure can help shed some light on our turbulent times.

On 19 June, I will be giving a two hour presentation on “Beyond the Robot: Consciousness and Existentialism,” based on my book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, for the Pari Center, in Tuscany, Italy. (And yes, I would very much have liked this one to have been in real time…) Some of my readers will know that Wilson was one of the most important and insightful philosophers of consciousness of the past two centuries. My talk will focus on his attempt to create a “new existentialism,” a positive one driven by optimism and meaning, to replace the grim, stoical vision of Heidegger, Sartre and Camus, which ended in a cul-de-sac. My presentation is part of a series, “What is Consciousness,” which includes presentations by Iain McGilchrist, Bernardo Kastrup, Roshi Richard Baker – whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, at the end of 2019, just on the cusp of Coronamania – and others.

On 26 June I will be the keynote speaker at the Annual Convention of the Swedenborg Church of North America. I will be speaking about my new book, Introducing Swedenborg: Correspondences, an essay on the influence Swedenborg’s ideas about “correspondences” between the natural and spiritual worlds had on modern culture. I’m not sure if this is open to the public. If it is, I will post the details forthwith.

On 18 July, my talk for the Last Tuesday Society, “A Dark Muse: Writers and the Occult,” based on my book The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse (published in the US as A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult), will look at how ideas about the occult and esoteric have influenced some of the greatest writers and poets of the past few centuries. August Strindberg, Fernando Pessoa, Arthur Rimbaud, J. K. Huysmans are some the recipients of this seductive muse’s inspiration.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the letting up of locking down, but remember to stay safe and well.

Superhuman, Transhuman, or Fully Human: Whose Future Is It?

This is the text to the talk I gave at the Deus ex Machina conference sponsored by Masaryk University, Brno,Czech Republic on 26/2/21. The conference was fascinating, with many excellent presentations, covering wide areas of contact between traditional notions of the occult and the technological developments that seem to parallel many aspects of the esoteric. I hope you get something out of it.

Superhuman, Transhuman, Fully Human: Whose Future is It?

A Talk for the Deus Ex Machina Conference 26/2/21

         Let me begin by saying thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. I was happy to accept the invitation because after looking at some of the themes that were going to be addressed, they all struck me as in some way related to a question that I believe will become more and more dominant as the century goes on. This is the question of what it means to be human. We are already well on our way to eroding the meaning of “man” and “woman,” a concern C. S. Lewis addressed long ago in his little book The Abolition of Man, which is well worth reading. I recently read somewhere that in Canada, I believe, in order to differentiate between the sexes, science professors are no longer allowed to use the terms “man” and “woman,” or even male or female, but must refer instead to “egg producing” and “testosterone producing” humans, I guess. It may be the case that in a few years that term “human” too will be jettisoned.

Not long ago at a symposium at the Esalen Institute in California, I had one very earnest academic tell me that he had a “real problem with the term human.” Personally I don’t – which isn’t to say that I am entirely happy with the species to which it refers. In fact, a certain dissatisfaction with the “only human” will inform what I am going to say today.

As my title suggests, I’ll be looking at three different ways of understanding what it means to be human. Or perhaps I should say that I will be looking at what some ideas of “transcending” the human, going beyond our apparent limitations, suggest about what we used to call “human potential,” our untapped resources, the possibilities latent within us. I am of a generation that believed in and experienced some of these possibilities – I still do – and which remain fundamentally potentialities of consciousness, the actualising of which informs the process of becoming what the psychologist Abraham Maslow – incidentally one of the most important figures from the early days at Esalen – called “fully human.” I am borrowing the term from Maslow here, as I have done in some of my books, as a general notion of a state of being more fully “ourselves” than the one which we usually unquestioningly accept as given. That doubt about the term “human” should arise at the Esalen Institute, which began in the 1960s, and which is dedicated to the discovery and actualisation of human potential, seems to suggest that confusion about what it means to be human has spread rather far.

I should point out that technically, the attempt to arrive at a metaphysical or ontological answer to the question “what does it mean to be human,” or, as it used to be asked, “What is man?”, rather than a biological or political or social one, was the province of a school of thought from the last century known as philosophical anthropology. In the early twentieth century, among others, Ernst Cassirer, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Berdyaev were some of the major names associated with philosophical anthropology, and I write about their work in my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. This is where I take my own shot at an answer to the question of the purpose of humanity, the part we play in the grand cosmic process.

Maslow’s “fully human,” the self-actualised human being, who has made real his or her potential, is a goal, an ideal. No one is ever completely self-actualised, just as in the Jungian school no one is ever completely individuated. But we can be more actualised or less, and in this sense Maslow remarked that it seems that some people are “more human” than others, in the sense that they have “made real” more of themselves than others have. After all, to “actualise” something is to make it “actual,” that is, to make it real. So to actualise yourself means to make yourself real.

If being “fully human” is the goal, the starting point is what we can call the “only human,” or the “good enough human,” as it were; presumably below this would be a realm of the “almost human,” but that doesn’t concern us.  The “only human,” of whom we can expect only so much, is the standard, commonly accepted view of ourselves as perhaps well-meaning, but deeply muddled, severely limited creatures, devoid of free will and entirely dependent on the environment for our behaviour, a kind of walking stimulus/response machine. We are reminded of this assessment in a variety of ways by science and culture, and I trust I need offer no examples. We are flawed, inconstant individuals, and the best we can hope for is to declare our inadequacies outright – indeed little else is popular in “serious” culture and self-help chat shows these days – and huddle together to share some human warmth.

Perhaps the noblest expression of this highly restricted perception of mankind is the existentialist, that sees humans as “authentic” when we stoically endure the meaninglessness of life and the universe and our inability to make sense of either. The more common expression is the average person, who works to achieve the satisfaction of what Maslow calls our “deficiency needs”, what we lack – food, shelter, sex, and self-esteem – and is happy if he does.  He feels no strong urge to go “beyond” himself. This urge to go beyond, Maslow tells us, is a “creative” or “being” need, not one of deficiency, an expression of the hunger to self-actualise, for which mere happiness is irrelevant. In fact, it can often be a hurdle.

Superheroes as models for self-actualisation

Now, what does all this have to do with comic book superheroes? Well, were I asked to say when my interest in consciousness, the occult, the esoteric, the mystical, philosophy, psychology, literature and everything else I have devoted quite some time and energy to studying and writing about began, I would have to say it started when I was around five years old and that the source was comic books. That was the revelatory moment. I know I was that age because I have a very vivid memory of one day asking my grandmother for 10c to buy a comic–  it was The Flash and when I got to the candy store, the owner told me they had gone up in price to 12c. I had a considerable time getting the other 2c from my grandmother, so the event stayed in my memory. I must have been reading comics before this, because the hike in price was a shock. The price increase happened in late 1961, in the midst of what is known as the Silver Age of comics, before my sixth birthday, so I must have been a devotee from fairly early on.

         Another vivid, even earlier memory associated with comics involves the meaning of the word “cosmic.” I started out, as many other young boys did (comics really were a “boy thing” then) as a reader of DC comics, with Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and so on. It would be a few years before I discovered Marvel. My favourite comic at the time was the Justice League of America – the nationalist tag was later dropped – because in it you got six heroes for the price of one. Another team effort was the Legion of Superheroes, superpowered teen agers from other planets, one of whose members was Superboy; they appeared in Adventure Comics.

One member of the legion was a character called Cosmic Boy. He wasn’t a favourite but I was curious about his name. His superpower was magnetism – rather like Marvel’s supervillain Magneto – and I wondered why he wasn’t called Magnetic Boy. I asked my sister, who was a few years older than me, what “cosmic” meant. She couldn’t tell me, so I asked my mother, who didn’t know either. So in one sense you could say that I’ve been trying to find out ever since.

         This is merely to say that like many other young boys at the time, comic books introduced me to a world rather different than the one I knew around me, a much wider, deeper, more interesting world, in which anything was possible. The everyday world of parents, siblings, school, friends and relatives was implacably there and would become more so as time went on. As Wordsworth says, “the shades of the prison house” close in as we move from the paradise of childhood into the dreary world of adults. But there was an escape, a portal into another world, in which one could travel in space and time, to other planets, and meet remarkable people and have amazing adventures, and in which one felt more at home than at the dinner table or in the classroom.

And just as the superheroes who took you on these adventures kept their secret identities hidden, you too felt that you were two people: one who had to get the homework done and listen to boring lessons, and another who travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy or into the depths of the earth or into the past or future, with, if I am allowed the metaphor, a comic book as the flying carpet to take you there.

Romanticism

In other words, comic books were my earliest introduction to romanticism, not as a school of literature and thought – that wouldn’t be for another few years – but as a hunger for something more than what I later learned the philosopher Heidegger called “the triviality of everydayness.” My refusal to accept the world on its own terms started at a young age. I can remember some adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Before I could say anything my sister intervened and said “And you can’t say a superhero. They’re not real.” I think I left the question hanging but I can honestly say that I never entertained any idea of occupying some serious, normal position in life. For some reason still unknown to me, I have always thought that I would be a poet, or artist, or writer or something along stereotypically romantic lines. I might add that the one time that I did contemplate admitting defeat and accepting that I would have to find a place for myself in the “real” world – rather than forge one of my own – proved utterly disastrous, although it was the kind of disaster that led to better things.

Evolutionary appetites

This hunger for something more than everyday life, which is the essence of romanticism, is also the essence of what I call the “evolutionary appetite.” This is our inbuilt urge to transcend ourselves, to self-actualise; in other words, to grow and to develop our powers and abilities in order to master life and explore our own being. At this stage we can say that the “only human” are those who, once entered into adulthood, jettison the interest in “other worlds” and reluctantly or otherwise, accept the “triviality of everydayness” as unavoidably inevitable. These seem to make up the majority of people and whatever loss they feel in “putting aside childish things” they seem to make up for in satisfying their deficiency needs: earning a good living, having a home, a family and the good opinion of their peers. There is nothing wrong with this and in many cases it warrants respect. It is difficult enough to achieve any success in life, which is a pretty grim business.

Some individuals reach the furthest limits of these lower needs and achieve the esteem of thousands of people; these are celebrities. Maslow posited a level of actualisation beyond this, a creative level free of the need for immediate gratification – that is, of the good opinion of others – that could sustain itself through its own activity, what Nietzsche called becoming a “self-revolving wheel.” These are the self-actualisers. They are motivated by something coming from within, not by the pursuit of external rewards.

         Romantics who are unable to make the transition to the real world, but who lack the vitality, talent, and sheer stubbornness to force the world to take them at their own valuation, usually have a difficult time of it, and their appetite for other worlds generally takes on a different character, their magic carpets often coming in the form of alcohol, drugs, or some other means of escape. We can say that in a sense the superhero is the romantic who is not defeated by life, who maintains his inner vision in spite of it. The romantic who is defeated, sinks into a fantasy world as a compensation. The romantic who isn’t defeated, in some way is able to transform life, to re-create it, to, in a sense, make the fantasy real. That is, to actualise it.

Adam Strange

It was while writing The Caretakers of the Cosmos that I realised that one comic book hero, who was a favourite of mine, embodied the essence of romanticism. I don’t know if Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and Mike Sekowsky, who developed the character, realised it, but in Adam Strange – who appeared in Mystery in Space – they had hit on the perfect metaphor for the romantic consciousness, which is, in essence, as mentioned earlier, the sense than man is a creature of two worlds.

         In the Adam Strange stories, this notion was taken literally. The hero is an archaeologist and on a trip to the Andes something remarkable happens: he is hit by a weird ray of light coming from outer space – he later learns it is called the “zeta beam” – and finds himself transported to the planet Rann, an earth-like world, orbiting Alpha Centauri, some 25 trillion miles away. There he meets a beautiful woman, has adventures, saves the planet, and becomes a hero, while all the while sporting a nifty rocket pack and ray gun. (It is, of course, a variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels.)

But then the effect of the zeta beam wears off and he finds himself back on earth. He discovers that he can calculate where and when the zeta beam will again appear, and for the rest of the series he is off, heading into the jungle or up a mountain, to intercept the zeta beam and return to Rann, only to be sent back to earth once again. But he is determined to become a citizen of this new world and to find a way to remain on Rann forever…

This is, of course, the romantic’s dream. It is also the neurotic’s fantasy and the creative individual’s model for how the world should be. Not that he would wish an exact copy of Rann – that would be too much to hope for; it is quite a fantastic place – but he can wish that life on earth should be as exciting and interesting as it is on Rann. And that, Maslow would say, is within the realm of possibility.

So here we have comic book superheroes as gateways as it were to the romantic side of the human psyche and also to our inherent, latent evolutionary possibilities. The two, indeed, are practically synonymous, with one suggesting the other.

Teenage mutants on the rise!

It was while writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, about the “occult revival” of the 1960s, that I noticed that this notion of some coming evolutionary change in humans, that would produce a new race of supermen, was at the centre of the popular culture of that decade. It was also at the heart of the burgeoning youth movement. The book that kickstarted the 60s occult revival, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, spoke a great deal about mutants and a coming mutation affecting the human race.  I saw a correspondence of this idea with several other products of sixties pop culture, specifically the film Village of the Damned, which came out in 1960 – the same year as The Morning of the Magicians – and which was based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, and the Marvel comic The X-Men, which started in 1963, the year in which I discovered Marvel and switched my allegiances from DC. I also suggested that this idea of a breed of children possessing strange powers who threaten the older generation with extinction was also hitting the streets in Haight-Ashbury. By 1966, in the San Francisco Oracle,the hippies were declaring themselves “mutants” and were encouraging others like them to join them in order to “be free.”

I might mention that Jeffrey Kripal, whose Mutants and Mystics looks at the connection between superheroes, mysticism and the paranormal in fascinating and exciting detail, tips his hat to me in the book, remarking that Turn Off Your Mind had pointed him in that direction.

John Wyndham, overlooked evolutionary novelist

The hippies are long gone but the X-Men have become a highly successful film franchise. In some ways, it pays to be a mutant. However it strikes me that John Wyndham’s work has not been mined for its evolutionary themes as much as it should be, and I’d like to take advantage of this talk to mention this. The Day of the Triffids is known, mostly through the film and television versions. But novels like The Chrysalids, Plan for Chaos, The Kraken Wakes all deal with the idea of another race taking over from humanity. A reader of George Bernard Shaw who also read Wyndham would recognise that he engages with the same evolutionary questions that Shaw did. Man and Superman, which adds a Nietzschean spice to the Don Juan story, is the best known of Shaw’s works of “creative evolution.” The notion of a creative evolution, rather than the mindless Darwinian variety, goes back to Henri Bergson, and is at the foundation of any notion of “human potential.” But Back to Methuselah, Shaw’s “metabiological Pentateuch,” was also familiar to Wyndham, who treated the question of longevity – a central concern of transhumanism –  in Trouble with Lichen. Incidentally, someone should tell the feminists about this book. In it, it’s women who receive the gift of life-extension and upon whom the next step in human evolution depends.

Although Marvel cornered the mutant superhero market – and had other evolutionary themed characters, such as the Inhumans (Fantastic Four) and the New Men (Thor) – science fiction had got there before them. Bookshelves in most hippie households held copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” was about “ancient aliens” tampering with human evolution.)These works, and others, approached the mutant theme with more seriousness than the comic version. (Readers of today’s comics must shake their heads at the lack of sophistication in the comics I was reading; but comics were for kids then, and were not considered “serious” material, and I must admit that I’m not entirely sold on their own mutation into the “graphic novel.”) But one work of science fiction dealing with the idea of a sudden change coming over the human race rarely gets mentioned. It was not a hippie “must read,” and was written decades before they appeared. And the change coming over humanity was not one the hippies would have welcomed.

H.G. Wells and Star Begotten

Star Begotten is a late novel by H.G. Wells; it was published in 1937, well after the early science fiction that made him famous. In it the protagonist, a historian, begins to feel that some strange change is coming over the people around him. The normal, ordinary world he is used to seems somehow – wrong. People close to him now seem distant, and his own work strikes him as insipid. When he overhears a conversation about how cosmic rays may be increasing human intelligence, he begins to wonder if someone is doing this purposefully…

He suspects that the Martians are using the cosmic rays to turn human beings into – well, better people, actually. The powers the cosmic rays are imbuing humanity with include a new seriousness about life, a disinclination to waste time on trivialities, a rejection of old, inefficient behaviours, and above all a desire to apply their energies to some worthwhile purpose beyond themselves, not to the pursuit of riches, power, or fame, the means of shelter, sex, and self-esteem, the lower rungs on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

In fact, the Martians are making people more the way Wells himself wanted to be, as he makes clear in his Experiment in Autobiography, published in 1934. “I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business.” What was his proper business? To do “originative intellectual work.” “The originative intellectual worker is not a normal human being and does not lead nor desire to lead a normal human life. He wants to lead a supernormal life.”

We can say he wants to lead a self-actualised life. And what difference is there between the supernormal and the superhuman?

Wells hit on a suggestive metaphor to describe people like himself – creative workers – and the people like those in Star Begotten who have been affected by the Martians’ cosmic rays. He says they are like “early amphibians… struggling out of the waters into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted necessities…But the new land has not yet definitively emerged from the waters and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.”

This is a corollary to Wells’ assertion that just as birds are creatures of the air and fish creatures of the sea, human beings are creatures of the mind. Or at least we should be. We are not there yet, but it is our evolutionary destiny. Most of us still need to be subsidized by large helpings of approval from others to top up our self-esteem, and after a few hours of intellectual work, are happy to sink back into stupid living. But in people like himself and other creative workers, Wells saw the beginning of a race that would be able to maintain itself purely through mental activity, without the props and supports that come from outside. In other words, he had a sense of a generation of Maslow’s self-actualisers on the rise.

And if being able to stay on land without having to return to the water is Wells’ definition of a human doing his proper work – if I can stay with his amphibian metaphor – we can say then that there is no sense in talking about transhumanism, when most of us aren’t fully human yet.

Attack of the Mind Parasites

One writer of science fiction who took Wells at his word was the British existentialist Colin Wilson. I said that my interest in the sort of thing I write about began with comic books when I was five years old. Another major event in this line of development happened some fourteen years later, in 1975, when I was living on the Bowery in New York and making a precarious living playing in a rock band. It was in that milieu that I came upon a copy of Wilson’s book The Occult, published in 1971. Until then I had no interest in the occult and what gripped me about Wilson’s work – and literally changed my life – was that he approached the occult from the perspective of existential philosophy – phenomenology, in fact – and that it interested him because in it he saw evidence for potentialities of human consciousness far beyond those allowed by official accounts. In fact, early UK paperback editions called The Occult “the ultimate book for those who would walk with the gods,” which is, one must admit, quite pitch.

I can’t go into detail about Wilson’s attempt to create a new “positive existentialism,” to avoid the dead end reached by Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – I do so in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson – but I can mention here that in it he drew on Maslow, particularly his notion of the “peak experience,” the sudden bursts of “newness,” bringing vitality and joy – mini mystical experiences – that Maslow believed were experienced by all healthy people.

Another thinker bubbling in Wilson’s evolutionary brew was Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which is essentially the study of the structures of consciousness. Again, time forbids any detail. Those unfamiliar with Wilson’s work will have to take my word for it that for our purposes here the place where these two thinkers come together most effectively in Wilson’s oeuvre is in his Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites, written at the behest of August Derleth for his Arkham House press, and published in 1967.

Wilson too believed that a change had come over humanity. He placed the start of it in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of romanticism, which in essence was informed with a sudden sense of man as something godlike, and which we can find  in Beethoven’s symphonies, Blake’s visionary epics, Hegel’s vast metaphysical system, and other, similar titanic works. Yet so many of the later romantics died young or went insane. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, asked why they did. In The Mind Parasites he arrived at an phenomenological answer to that question, in the form of a kind of psychic vampire, that has been sucking away at human vitality and creativity and killing off its visionaries for the past two centuries. The hero of the novel discovers their existence, but he also discovers the means of expelling them: intentionality, which is the central point of Husserl’s philosophy. We can say the parasites are defeated by phenomenology – a first, I think, in science fiction, or any genre.

Cracking the Black Room

Husserl’s central insight is that perception is intentional. We have a “will to perceive” as well as perceptions. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of the world, as Descartes believed, but an active reaching out and “grabbing” it. We “intend” the world, but are unaware that we do. Wilson’s protagonist is able to reach into himself, to the source of intentionality, with the result that he is able to throw off attacks by the parasites – coming in the form of existential despair, madness, bleak depression and thoughts of suicide – by inducing Maslow’s “peaks.” But he discovers that intentionality can also have an effect on the physical world. He and his colleagues develop enormous psychokinetic powers which eventually defeat the parasites by pushing the moon, where their base is, out of earth’s orbit and further into space. (Readers familiar with the Gurdjieff’s cosmology will note the allusion.)

We can say that the protagonists of The Mind Parasites develop what we would call superpowers, solely through understanding their own consciousness. That is, by becoming “fully human.” Through the discipline of phenomenology, Wilson’s “evolutionary existentialism” reveals powers latent in the human mind that we call psychic, or occult, but which are exactly like those attributed to superheroes. (There in nuce is the theme of Mutants and Mystics.)

I might mention that in another novel, The Black Room, a spy story, the hero attains a similar power over his mind while trying to crack the challenge of a sensory deprivation chamber, designed to break his will. I said earlier that the official view of humankind is that we are entirely dependent on stimuli coming from the environment to motivate us. This view has been at the centre of western ideas about human psychology since John Locke first argued that there is “nothing in the mind that wasn’t first in the senses.” This means that we are tabula rasa , blank slates, until impressions from the outer world “write” something on our minds. This suggests that our minds are like empty flats, and that we have to go to the equivalent of Ikea to fill them up with stuff. 

Wilson rejects this, and in The Black Room, the hero manages to make contact with the wellsprings of intentionality and so is able to remain in the chamber indefinitely, when others had gone mad. He is no longer dependent on outside stimuli because he has got in touch with an inner purpose. We are at our best, Wilson noted, when faced with a challenge. This is why his “outsiders” throw themselves into “living dangerously.”  But when the challenge recedes, we slip back down to our “only human” selves, just as Adam Strange found himself sent back to earth. If we are ever to become “self -revolving wheels” as Nietzsche says, we need to find a way to draw on the vitality we tap when faced with a challenge, without the challenge. Without, that is, the need for anything outside to stimulate us. Oddly enough, this is something many of us have had to face in some form during the Covid 19 crisis.

When we are able to do this, we would then be on our way to being fully human.

We’re only transhuman, aren’t we?

Now, what does this have to do with transhumanism? It strikes me that transhumanism is a kind of literalising of the powers associated with superheroes, a way of “actualising” them in a very literal way through technology. In some ways I would say that transhumanism is similar to the ideas that the gods were “ancient aliens,” that magic and the supernatural are expressions of an extra-terrestrial  “super science,” turned into myth by our overawed ancestors. But my main question about transhumanism is: Is it really transhuman at all? That is to say, does it aim for something that truly transcends the human in the way that Maslow’s “fully human” transcends the “only human,”  or is it really interested in only an extension of what humans already do – which in essence is what technology can achieve, and what thrilled adolescents like me when reading about our favourite superheroes?

We can put it this way: which Superman does transhumanism aim at? Nietzsche’s or Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s? (I should say I’m a fan of both.) We know the comic book Superman is “faster than a speeding bullet” and “has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” Without going into detail – the literature is there if you want to check– we know that much of the transhuman agenda involves the kind of invulnerability, super strength, speed, flight and so on that Superman possesses, provided not by our yellow sun and earth’s low gravity (compared to Krypton), but by technology and science. Superman was known as the “man of steel” and the “man of tomorrow,” and that’s whom the transhumanists have on their agenda.

Nietzsche’s Superman possesses no powers, unless you want to call his ability to say “Yes!” to life and to will its eternal return a power. He is able to do this because he has tapped the inner springs of power and health – psychological health – the Dionysian “yea-saying”. He cannot fly or see through walls, but no technology can induce sense of “zest and well-being” that comes to those who become “self-revolving wheels, “ or who can endure the challenge of the black room without sinking into insanity. The heroes of The Mind Parasites achieve extraordinary power over the outer world, of a kind that a “super science” could conceivably match. But can technology produce the ability to perceive a meaning independent of the senses, a certainty of inner purpose that defeats the black room? This seems to be achieved, if it is, solely through our own efforts at understanding the mental actions involved in intentionality, which is essentially the process of becoming aware of the active character of consciousness. It is something that depends on us, not that happens to us.

Transhuman, all too transhuman

Nietzsche, I think, would regard the techno-superman as “transhuman, all-too-transhuman,” meaning that his aims and purposes remain on the level of the “only human,” indeed perhaps even of Zarathustra’s “last men,” and are not “transcendent” at all. They strike me as the dreams of clever school boys who are determined to really fly, or whatever, in a very literal sense, rather than discover how to take the interior journey that the hero of the black room does.

It is interesting that the term “transhumanism” was coined by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, in the early 1950s. Huxley’s picture of man as “the managing director of evolution” has much more in common with Wells’ “Martians” or Maslow’s self-actualisers, than it does with the transhumanism of today, which acknowledges Huxley’s coinage, but is quite clear about its own agenda. More than half a century ago, Huxley recognised that humanity had reached a unique position, both in its own development and in that of the planet. We had reached the point where we could determine what direction human evolution would take, rather than remaining the passive recipients of environmental forces and the chance helpful mutation. Huxley saw that the way to our evolutionary future lay in “exploring human nature” in order to “find out what are the possibilities open to it.” He saw those possibilities in art, culture, spiritual achievement, social improvements, science – but he said little about technology. Indeed, if anything, like many at the time, Huxley was concerned about technology’s increasing dominance and its effect on society, just as his brother was. One wonders what he would have said about the usurpation of his belief in a “transhuman” future by the very technology that worried him? He might agree too that it was sadly, “transhuman, all too transhuman.”

One point I wanted to make but did not allow time for, is that the transhuman ethos has much in common with the sorts of occultism that we find all over the internet today, and in which the net itself serves the purpose of the old school “astral light,” akashic record, or some such medium through which occult forces work. I would say that just as the internet has in many ways “literalised” these ideas, so too transhumanism has literalised a variety of occult powers: immortality, clairvoyance, astral travel – or, I should say, it would like to. If there isn’t one already, a book about how the transhuman agenda is a techno re-tread of ancient Hermetic ideas – along the lines of Erik Davis’ Techgnosis – is waiting to be written.

I would suggest that unless what goes by the name of transhumanism today is willing to forget its emphasis on technology and embrace something along the lines of the “fully humanism” I’ve tried to present here, it should really change its name. I would suggest “non-humanism” or “unhumanism”, since the future it envisions seems, to my mind at least, aimed at doing away with the human altogether, and replacing it with some technological version of the hermaphrodite, part human, part machine, which is, I guess, what we know as Star Trek’s Borg. And we know how that worked out, don’t we?

Thank you.

Authenticity, Holy Russia, Superheroes, and more…

One of my sons is studying existentialism at university, and he asked for some help on the topic of “authenticity,” living an “authentic” life. I wrote up some notes that you can find below. But before that, here are some updates.

On 25 February, at 6:30 PM UK time, I’ll be speaking online about my book The Return of Holy Russia for the Kensington Central Library.

On 26 February, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the Deus Ex Machina conference, hosted online by Masaryk University, at Brno, in the Czech Republic. My talk will look at how the comic book superheroes of my youth strike me as models for the transhumanist agenda, but also for something much more evolutionary…

My first book, Turn Off Your Mind, is back in print after a considerable absence. It’s new incarnation, as Turn Off Your Mind: The Dedalus Book of the 1960s, includes more than 100 pages of new material. It’s available on amazon.co.uk and should be available on amazon.com this spring.

My book on Swedenborg’s Correspondences – a long essay, really – is now available direct from the Swedenborg Society.

And there’s a thoughtful review of my Jung the Mystic at Steven Greenleaf’s very thoughtful blog.

And now for authenticity…

Notes on Authenticity for Joshua

We might say that concern with living an authentic life can be traced back to the beginning of philosophy, in the command to gnothi seauton, “know thyself”, that hung above the oracle at Delphi. We can also see it in Socrates’ criticism of the Sophists, who did not pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, but were adept at using words to their personal advantage, making the “worse argument the better,” in other words, sophistry. And we can find it in the Gospels, when Jesus criticises the Pharisees and Saducees for their very visible acts of piety, which belied their lack of true humility. But we can say that the modern expression of this concern begins with the nineteenth century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard, a witty, eccentric outsider figure, was critical of the limp, complacent, hypocritical Christianity of his day, and with the abstract philosophy of Hegel. Kierkegaard believed that a true Christian, one who lived by the spirit and not only the letter of the Gospels, would feel what he called angst, anxiety and despair, because of his awareness of the reality his own limited, imperfect self in the face of God. The Christians of his day, much like many today, would go to church on Sunday and make the proper noises, but the rest of the time they were rather less than religious, and lived lives aimed at material comfort, ignoring the demands made on them that living as authentic Christians would bring.

Kierkegaard rejected Hegel because, although his system could account for everything, existence itself, in terms of logic and the Absolute Idea, it was useless in guiding him in how he should live his life. Kierkegaard compared Hegel’s philosophy to a map on which Copenhagen, where he lived, was the size of a postage stamp. It was of no help in getting him around town. Kierkegaard used the term “existential” to refer to these kinds of questions, of meaning and purpose – “why do I exist, and what should I do now than I do?” They referred to his existence, here and now, and what he should do with it, not to the historical unfolding of the Absolute Spirit. These were the kinds of questions religion used to answer but no longer did. Hegel’s magnificent system, in which everything fit into place, could not answer them either.

Most people aren’t bothered by these questions, and just live, doing what other people do. Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed, believed that if one ignored these questions, one lived “inauthentically,” that is, one accepted a more comfortable, but false, way of living, in order to avoid the demands that come with living a true life.

Kierkegaard would be rediscovered in the 1920s, but before that, there was Nietzsche.

Dostoyevsky is also considered one of the founding fathers of existentialism, although he was a novelist, not a philosopher. (But Sartre wrote novels and plays, etc. too…) His novels deal with existential questions existentially, because he explores them with characters in life, not abstract ideas. But I don’t think you’re covering him.

Nietzsche didn’t know of Kierkegaard, although he did read some Dostoyevsky. Nietzsche’s ideas on authenticity are different than Kierkegaard’s, although both rejected the lukewarm, complacent Christianity of the time. Although Kierkegaard was a Christian and Nietzsche rejected Christianity, they were alike in their demand to live an authentic life. For Kierkegaard this meant a life that did not ignore the true reality of human existence. This meant to live a true Christian life, which Kierkegaard believed required what he called an “absurd leap of faith.” It is “absurd” because we cannot “know” in any scientific or rational way whether God exists (Hegel’s system notwithstanding), so we must take a chance and believe in spite of not knowing – and believe in a real, existential way, and not give lip service, as the Sunday Christians do. It demanded taking a risk, and the bourgeois Christians of Copenhagen, quite happy with themselves and their comfortable lives, rejected any risk.

Nietzsche’s command was not a leap of faith, but a perhaps equally absurd “yea-saying” to life, that he encapsulated in the motto amor fati, “love of fate.” It was absurd in the sense that such a love meant that one wishes nothing to be changed in one’s life, in the past or present, and that further one not only accepts but affirms and celebrates the “eternal recurrence” of this life. This was the test that Nietzsche presented to his readers, who were very few in his lifetime, but could be counted by the thousands soon after his death. Can you say “yes” to your life, so that were you to live it over in exactly the same way, you would wish for nothing more? Those who could pass this heavy test – Nietzsche’s calls it a “great weight”  – are candidates for becoming what he called the “overman,” which is often mistranslated as “superman.” The overman is able to accept the challenge of creating a meaning of his own, through his own zest for life and his creative engagement with it.

Nietzsche did not accept the idea of some transcendental world, which gave this world its meaning, whether the Christian heaven or the platonic Idea (or Hegel’s, for that matter). There is no heaven or higher world, and we can not find a meaning in this one, as if it was misplaced, or in terms of ideas such as “progress” or “emancipation” or other social developments. Nor can science help us here. Through our own engagement with life, we give it meaning, by living in such a way that we feel the affirmation, the “yea-saying,” that will allow us to accept the challenge, the heaviest weight, of recurrence.

But overmen are few and far between. More prevalent, for Nietzsche, are the “last men.” When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain top in order to proclaim the doctrine of the overman, the people in the marketplace are not interested. But when he speaks of the last men, they perk up their ears. Why? Because the last men live for comfort, pleasure, easy living. They are all alike, have no interest in the high ideals and creative challenges that being an overman bring, and reduce reality to triviality – much like our own post-post-post-everything world… They are like the pseudo-Christians Kierkegaard rightly detested, and the idea of recurrence, if not ridiculous, strikes them as a kind of hell.

I said that Kierkegaard was rediscovered in the 1920s. One of those who rediscovered him was Martin Heidegger, who started as a follower of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Heidegger eventually rejected Husserl’s phenomenology, and plunged into what Heidegger called a “fundamental ontology,” a study of being. Heidegger believed that what was wrong with people in the modern age was that they had become “forgetful of being.” In the German, they suffered from Seinsvergessenheit, “being-forgetfulness”. What does this mean? Essentially it means the same as Kierkegaard’s complaint that people ignore the reality of things, their mystery and sheer strangeness, and comfort themselves by living complacent lives, ignoring the fundamental question of their own existence.

When we do confront these questions – briefly, every now and then, in moments of despair and uncertainty – we experience what Heidegger called a sense of being “thrown into existence,” Geworfenheit, “thrownness.” We find ourselves here, now, in this strange universe, but have no idea why we or it exists. An “existential moment” occurs when you realise that none of the stories or reasons you had until then accepted as adequate accounts of the world and yourself in it, work. Most people quickly retreat into some more comfortable view of life, and for Heidegger, they live “inauthentically.” They are always aware of what the anonymous mass of others – the “They” – think, are doing, believe, and so on, and are happy and eager to do the same. For Heidegger, living authentically means accepting the reality of our radical finitude – the idea that we will die someday – and affirming the challenge of giving meaning to your existence, which means to remember your being, and all the sense of urgency that comes with, and not to forget it in losing yourself in the They.

I’ll end with Sartre, who took Heidegger’s notion of inauthenticity and repackaged it in what he called mauvaise foi, “bad faith.” This is when someone ignores or avoids the reality of his own existence and the responsibilities that come with it, and loses his own identity in some stereotypical one. So, a politician is always a politician, a professor is always a professor, a celebrity is always a celebrity. Their persona – the face they show the world – takes over from what we might call their “authentic” self. They no longer have to agonise over choices, because they already know what to do, they act in a stereotypical way. Their identity comes from other people, not from themselves. Their inner emptiness is hidden from themselves by the role they play.

Reflections on Recent Events

Tlon, who publish Dark Star Rising in Italy, have asked me for some comments on recent events in America to post on their blog. I’m posting here my reply to Michele Trionfera, who was an indispensable guide on my mini-Italian book tour back in 2019.

Dear Michele,

Many thanks for asking me to comment on recent events in America. I have to say that I was deeply saddened and dismayed at what took place at the Capitol, but the saddest thing was that I was not surprised. The only thing that did surprise me is that events didn’t take an even worse turn. That may be because of the nature of these sudden, volcanic social eruptions: pressure builds up and then the lid blows off the cooker. But after the initial explosion, unless there is some plan or guidance to lead it, the energy dissipates and dies down: the pot boils over and puts out the fire… I am reminded of something the Joker says in the film The Dark Knight, when he compares himself to a dog that chases after a car, biting at the hubcap. If the dog ever got the hubcap, the Joker says, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. If you look at the faces of the ‘patriots’ who stormed the Capitol last Wednesday, on the CCTV recording, you can see them looking around, half like tourists amazed to be there, half like looters who didn’t know what to take first, or ‘iconoclasts’ who don’t which statute to smash. We could also say they were like people who play around with magic and then, when it actually works, say to themselves “What the f**k! This is real?” It was a good thing that among the crazies who broke into the place, there wasn’t anyone who could have organised an “occupy the Capitol” event in the way that other people occupied Wall Street.

Many things came to mind when I watched the news reports here in London. As you know, I’m American, but I’ve lived in London now for twenty-five years; in fact today, 10 January, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my relocation here. During that time I’ve seen America go through some remarkable, extraordinary changes – the UK has too – but if anything brought home the idea that in the twenty-first century, things would be different, what I saw on the BBC Wednesday night did. Many have said that the twentieth century was the American century. Well, the twenty-first isn’t. The end of the twentieth century may have been 9/11, in the way that the true end of the nineteenth century was the First World War. I would say confirmation of this was Trump’s election – with the years of Obama’s administration a brief stopgap in the process. But the final nail in the coffin, as it were, were the ‘patriots’ party-crashing the Capitol. I want to say “Olympus has fallen,” but I don’t want to draw attention to a bad film. One hopes that similar ‘patriots’ don’t recognize the need to organise. They’ve seen that it can be done. If there’s a next time, it may be more purposeful.

One of the things that Trump’s refusal to admit his election defeat brought home to me is that he is a perfect example of the psychological type that in Dark Star Rising I call “the Right Man.” I borrow the idea from the writer Colin Wilson, who first heard of it from the science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt. Simply put, the Right Man is someone who under no circumstances will admit to being wrong, and who will stop at practically nothing to get his way, even resorting to violence. This is why Van Vogt also called him “the Violent Man.” This is not an example of so-called “toxic masculinity,” as there are Right Women too. We can see this in Trump’s refusal to accept any “reality” that does not suit his purposes. Trump’s whole agenda has been about “creating” his own reality. He has been very good at it. More than 70 million Americans like his reality, and some of them have taken it to the streets.

Like other demagogues, Trump has been able to project some of his seemingly inexhaustible self-confidence into his followers, which is what all demagogues and, I should add, gurus do. In Dark Star Rising I speak of a gradient ranging from the magician, to the guru, and to the demagogue. Each operates in a similar way; what is different is the size of the audience, as it were. The magician puts a spell on one person, the guru controls a cult, and the demagogue hypnotizes a whole nation. (There are, of course, good magicians and gurus; I’m talking about the bad ones. I don’t think there can be a good demagogue; that would be the benevolent dictator.) When thus under the sway of the guru or demagogue, the individual can temporarily rise above himself, become something “more,” filled with the guru’s power or with the sense of mission given to him by the demagogue. (He or she can’t generate this themselves, hence the need for someone who can. If they could, they wouldn’t need him.) Clearly, many people who have got behind Trump had an interest and background in far-right political ideas. But many also did because, for better or worse, he gave their life a meaning it didn’t have.

This is something that progressive critics don’t get. Many people who voted for Trump were not necessarily gun-loving, racist red-necks. They were people who lacked some sense of their life being about something more than decent housing and having enough to eat, which, of course, are important but not enough. Men, and women, we know, do not live by bread alone – if I can quote scripture when speaking of a devil… For better or worse, Trump gave them a sense of purpose. A misguided, misdirected purpose, to be sure, but something that, in a warped way, was something of an ideal. As I say in the book, this is something that Hitler and Mussolini did too. We have an appetite for this just as much as we have an appetite for food, and we can satisfy that appetite with the equivalent of a healthy meal or junk food. This is something that progressives don’t get because it smacks of religion or mysticism – and that, we know, is the “opium of the people.” But sadly, people need a kind of opium in the sense that they need dreams, and opium or the equivalent provides them. I would say what we need is to find a way to provide the meaning, the dream, without the drug. We also need better dreams.

Another thing I talk about in the book, is the way in which what we can call the “acceptability barrier” has moved during Trump’s years. This is the Overton Window, or what is considered “acceptable discourse.” We can say it is the measure of what you can “get away with.” (I want to say that people have been “getting away with” a great deal in the art world for years; has the fashion  now moved into the sphere of politics?) The Alt-Right, who were for a time fashionable – where are they now? Richard Spencer supported Biden! – raised that window considerably, and Trump pretty much threw a brick through it. The barbarians (I am thinking of the fellow with the horns) who broke into the Capitol took advantage of this. From what I saw on the news, it looks like they broke some real windows too.

In a way, the images I saw of the ‘patriots’ in strange costumes and bizarre get ups, reminded me of two leftists outbreaks in the 1960s: the anti-Viet Nam War march on Washington in October, 1967, and May ’68 in Paris. If we want to say that what happened at the Capitol was an expression of the ‘occult politics’ that has surrounded Trump’s administration – and I believe it was – then it has antecedents in what happened in ’67 and ’68. In ’67 Abbie Hoffman tried to levitate the Pentagon, while the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, a devotee of Aleister Crowley, tried to exorcise it. May ’68 was all about “creating reality.” “Take Your Desires for Reality,” and “Power to the Imagination!” were some of the slogans that brought Paris to a standstill. Trump has always “taken his desires for reality,” and he has had decades of practice in bringing “power” to his imagination, being a devotee of “positive thinking.” The imagination is a tremendous force, kept in check by reason, and when it is unleashed and allowed to let rip, it is difficult to control, and it has no political allegiance. That the gate crashers were followers of Qanon secures the link with the occult politics of the 60s even more: ironically, many today who would have found themselves among the hippies now share an online “alternative reality” with far-right advocates the flower children would have abhorred.[1]

Something else that Trump has helped undermine is our ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, or truth from falsehood. This is not limited to the right side of the political spectrum. People who deny biology in favour of what they see as an individual’s “right” to be whatever sex he or she wants, can be said to be “taking their desires for reality.” This has left us, I believe, in what I call a “war of all against all,” in the sense that there is no common ground, no shared baseline reality, but instead a kind of continuous battle on all sides among competing causes, again, rather like one of the “survivalist” Reality TV shows, in which participants contest each other on a deserted island.

In a recent essay, “Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump,”[2] I show how Trump took advantage of the erosion of our belief in a stable, ‘objective’ truth or reality that had been underway since the late nineteenth century and which became de rigueur, in American universities at least, in 1980s and 90s, with the rise of intellectual fashions like deconstructionism and postmodernism. Trump no doubt has never heard of deconstructionism or postmodernism – both of which are decidedly of the left – but he nevertheless took advantage of the atmosphere of epistemological uncertainty they created. (Odd how intellectual fashions, arising among “men of the left,” helped to put a “man of the right” in power; is it too much to see a kind of intellectual French Revolution followed by a Reality TV Napoleon in this?) 

Postmodernism aligned nicely with Trump’s embrace of “positive thinking,” which likewise ignores or rejects the idea of any ‘truth’ that is not malleable. Postmodernism was dealing in “post truth” and “alternative facts” well before Trump hit the campaign trail. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, and Trump’s mentor, impressed upon him the idea that “Facts don’t matter. What matters is our attitude toward the facts.” This is a belief shared by what is known as “chaos magick.” I hastened to add that Trump most likely never heard of chaos magick, and in no way is it responsible for him. But as I point out in the book, he seems to have a natural talent for it, and if anything can serve as a example of this, I’d say what happened at the Capitol can be seen as a kind of chaos magick run wild. It was a transfer of what was happening online to the “real” world, the tweet made flesh, as it were. And this is what was supposed to have helped him get in the White House in the first place, the “synchromysticism” that the devotees of Kek and Pepe the Frog engaged in.

Trump’s years as a Reality TV star also contributed to the strange ontological milieu we now inhabit, in which once again there is no clear demarcation line between “reality” and “fantasy.” Watching the CCTV footage of the mob in the Capitol, they reminded me of contestants on Big Brother or Love Island. Yet perhaps the most drastic expression of our seeming inability to distinguish truth from falsehood is the dramatic rise in “conspiracy consciousness,” which is a direct result on the “assault on truth.” Let me quote from the essay I mention above. I write that:

At the same time as the postmodern party was turning into a somewhat disheartening morning after, an ambience of general distrust had taken hold of the popular mind. A “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur had called it, had settled in, a cynicism that, in its desire not to be taken in, subjected everything to doubt. Yet the popular mind had also acquiesced in a kind of discontented fatalism, convinced that the individual is at the mercy of forces well beyond his control, in the world and in himself, something that both postmodernism and deconstructionism had repeatedly repeated. The individual as such no longer existed; he was merely an empty space in which vague but omnipotent “social forces” operated. Ironically, this suspicion of once trusted sources was allied with a mind so open to a variety of “conspiracy theories” that it was ready to swallow practically any “alternative” account, as long as it contradicted whatever the “official” one was.[3]

Which is to say that we live in a time when everything is plausible but nothing is definite.

This susceptibility to conspiracies is, in a way, a good sign, in the sense that the psychologist C.G. Jung thought neurosis was a sign that the patient was trying in some way to deal with his problem. It was an ineffectual way, but it at least was an attempt. I would say that conspiracy theories are collective neuroses, in the sense that in the face of a world that seems increasingly out of control, they posit some kind of control, some intelligence, however insidious, behind the course of things. In other words, they posit some meaning behind what would otherwise seem real, true chaos. This is an expression of the hunger for meaning I mentioned earlier. Religion used to provide this, but we’ve outgrown it without gaining something to take its place. (This is the challenge we’ve faced for the past two centuries.) In the vacuum left behind, any powerful idea that can grip the individual takes hold. Unfortunately for many, in Trump’s case, one vacuum was filled by another.

          Sadly, I don’t see this as the end of Trump or Trumpism. Back in November, after the election, I found myself thinking: “Was that all it took? An election?” I found it hard to believe that the Trump Show had been cancelled. I don’t think it has. I think that just as Brexit was seen as the prelude to Trump’s presidency, what happened in the Capitol may be the opener for something else. What, I don’t know. But some barrier has been breached. “All things will be possible,” Ivanka Trump said when she introduced her father to the Republic National Convention in 2016. I’ll say. Those images from the Capitol alone, which will be turning up as memes and gifs soon enough, tell us that. Whom will they inspire? To be honest, I don’t really want to know. I don’t want to appear an alarmist, but Nancy Pelosi was right to want to make sure Trump couldn’t get at the nukes. I am wondering now if anyone has or can keep him away from them. Why do I say this? One thing I learned when researching my book is that Trump is driven by a need to do something bigger or better than it’s been done before, or, more to the point, to do something no one has done before. He also suffers from what is known as “gigantomania,” the need to create huge structures – like Trump Towers and his failed attempt to build the biggest casino in Atlantic City and other megastructures. It’s an affliction he shared with Hitler and Mussolini, who both enjoyed creating huge monuments to their power. One of the first things Trump did in office was to drop the “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear explosive in the US arsenal, on Isis in Afghanistan.[4] He can go kicking and screaming and saying its fake news to the end, but given he came in with one, someone really should make sure he doesn’t go out with a bang.


[1] https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/yoga-wellness-and-qanon-conspiracy-theories/

[2] https://garylachman.co.uk/2020/09/01/trickle-down-metaphysics/

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-drops-the-mother-of-all-bombs-on-afghanistan

Esoteric Evolution, Trickle Down Metaphysics, the Silver Age, and Colin Wilson needs your help.

Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2 of my three part online lecture series on Esotericism and the Evolution of Consciousness, given to the Theosophical Society in London, and based on The Secret Teachers of the Western World. Part 3 will be up sometime later this month or early next.

Here’s a link to my talk for the Explorers Club on “Trickle Down Metaphysics and the Goldilocks Theory of History.” The essay on which the talk is based is available here, on this site, or at academia.edu

Here’s another link, to a talk about the Silver Age I gave to a class in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. I was delighted that they were interested enough in my book The Return of Holy Russia to ask me to speak. The students were very engaged and their questions showed it.

The fund drive to finance the making of Dreaming to Some Purpose: The Life and Time of Colin Wilson, a much needed documentary about Wilson’s life and ideas, is still on and needs your help. We have less than a month left and so far have raised only a fraction of what we need. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of Wilson’s books or any of mine, please contribute what you can and pass the link on to others who might also do so. It would be a true shame for this not to happen. I don’t have to tell you that Wilson is one of the most important thinkers about consciousness in recent times and his ideas and insights need to be saved for posterity. I’ve done my bit: I’ve written a book about him. Now you can do yours.

One last item: a new recording by my son, the maestro. He too is a struggling artist. It runs in the family.

Dreaming to Some Purpose: The Live and Times of Colin Wilson

A crowdfunding page aiming to help finance the making of new Colin Wilson documentary has gone live, and I’m writing to pass this information on to all the Wilsonsians out there who know there is a need for a good documentary about the original Outsider. Colin has appeared in other videos, but none so far has been adequate or able to convey the range, depth, and complexity of his work, all the way from existentialism, the psychology of crime, to the paranormal and higher states of consciousness. This project aims to do just that.

There’s a variety of Wilsoniana offered as rewards for donors, ranging from some of Colin’s own possessions – his Swiss Army knife among them – signed copies of his books – and mine too (Beyond the Robot) and other perks. Please check out the promotional video and the other material at the site. Here’s the link: Dreaming to Some Purpose: The Life and Times of Colin Wilson.

In other news, the release date for my book on precognitive dreams and synchronicities, Time and the Dreaming Mind , has been pushed back to 2022. Blame coronomania. In the meantime, along with the talks I have lined up – the dates are given in the previous post – I have an article in the Sept-Oct issue of New Dawn #182 about how the Covid-19 lockdown in London helped me to understand some of CW’s basic ideas. In “Getting Beyond the Robot” I show how Colin’s notion of “the paradoxical nature of freedom” is at the heart of our moments of “wakening.”

I trust you are all well and keeping safe.

Autumn Talks 2020

I’ll be giving several talks this October and November. Here are the details.

On 22 October I’ll be speaking about the Silver Age to students in the Slavic and Eurasian Studies department of the University of Texas at Austin. I write about the Silver Age, a remarkably creative time in Russian history that stretched from around 1890 to 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution, in my book The Return of Holy Russia. It was a time of great interest in mysticism, magic, and the spiritual, with a brooding sense of the apocalypse, not unlike our own… I am not sure if the talk will be open to the public or if it will be available online. Details to follow.

On 25 October, starting at 6:00 PM London time, I’ll be giving the first of a series of talks for the Theosophical Society in England about “Esotericism and the Evolution of Consciousness,” based on my book The Secret Teachers of the Western World . This talk will look at how an earlier, “participatory” form of consciousness predated our more “alienated” modern minds, and how, although obscured by our more rational consciousness, it remained as the source of another “way of knowing.”

Part 2 in this series will be given on 8 November (6:00 pm UK time). “Esoteric Renaissance and Underworld” will look at how, following the rise of Christianity, the Hermetic tradition was kept alive in the Arab world and later transmitted to the west, where it influenced the Renaissance and other movements until it was forced to go “underground” by the rise of modern science.

In Part 3, “Toward the Integral Mind,” given on 22 November (6:00 pm UK time), I will look at how for the past few centuries we have been moving toward a possible completion of our “partial minds,” and how from the “Golden Age” of modern esotericism, through to the “occult revival” of the 1960s and today’s post-everything world, we have been involved in an important process in the evolution of consciousness.

On 26 October, starting at 7:00 PM London time, as a part of London Month of the Dead, I will be raising the dead, literally, giving a talk on the Russian Cosmist Nikolai Fedorov, who saw as the “common task” of humanity, the actual resurrection of the dead. Fedorov impressed Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and his ideas later led to the foundation of the Soviet space program. You can find out more about him and the other Cosmists in The Return of Holy Russia.

On Wednesday, 11 November, starting at 6:00 PM UK time, I’ll be talking about “Trickle Down Metaphysics and the Goldilocks Theory of History” for the Explorers Club. “Trickle Down Metaphysics” is how I describe the process by which the philosopher Nietzsche’s prediction of a coming age of nihilism in the late 1880s, “trickled down” from the metaphysical heights of his mountain top, via postmodernism and deconstructionism, to the lowlands of the “post truth” and “alternative facts” that fill our TV sets and Twitter feeds. The Goldilocks Theory of History is about getting our crises “just right,” and I don’t have to tell you we have many to choose from. “Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump” can be found in my previous post and at academia.edu. Goldilocks turns up in a few places in my books.

Trickle Down Metaphysics

Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump

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

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

An Untimely Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nihilism

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

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

Values Old and New

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

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

The Uncanny Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgetfulness of Being

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

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

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

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

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

A Wrong Turn at Plato

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

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

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

Inauthentic Being

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

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

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

Dismantling Western Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstruction Sets

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

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

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

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

The Absence of Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmodernity Ho!

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

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

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

Reality is Up For Grabs

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

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

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

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

The Party’s Over

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

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

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

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

Trickle Down Metaphysics

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

Enter Trump – Finally

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

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

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

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

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

And Now?

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

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

London August 2020

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

[6] Nietzsche 1967 p.3.

[7] Nietzsche 1977 p. 114.

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

[14] Nietzsche 1967 pp3-4.

[15] Ibid. p. 272.

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

[17] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[32] Stern. p. 133.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[41] Barzun 2000.

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

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

[44] Lachman 2018 pp. 47-49.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s The Caretakers of the Cosmos at Zeitgeist.

And at Legalize Freedom it’s Holy Russia again.