Tag: hermeticism

Taking Care of the Cosmos: A Talk for the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, Melbourne, August 4 2019

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, in Melbourne, during my recent lecture tour down under. It’s based on my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos.

Taking Care of the Cosmos

A Talk for Warranwood Steiner Centre, Melbourne, August 4, 2019

I’ve been asked to give a talk about my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. Let me say that I am quite pleased about this for a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason that neither I nor my publisher can fathom, it is one of my books that hasn’t received as much attention as some of my others – and let me assure you that the amount of attention the others have received is by no means enormous. Still, this book seems not to have generated as much discussion as some of my other books have, however modest that may be. The other reason I am happy to have a chance to talk about it, is that it is something of a more personal work of mine. Of course, every piece of writing a writer produces is in some way personal. He or she is behind it, however detached or objective their stance toward their subject may be. That they choose to write about that subject in that way tells us something about them, if only a little. But this book is more directly personal than that. It is a kind of personal statement, a declaration of how I see things, although, to be sure, I draw on a considerable array of thinkers, writers, and sages – as I do in all my books – in order to make my point and support my argument.

As I say in the book, the title, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, is rather bold and, as some friends pointed out while I was writing it, not exactly clear. Some thought it made the book sound like a work of science fiction. And for some readers, not partial to the message of the book, fiction is perhaps the  most accurate description of its contents. But the title came to me while I was working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. This was a history of the influence on western consciousness of the mythological founder of magic, philosophy, and the Hermetic tradition, thrice greatest Hermes. Although for centuries, Hermes Trismegistus was thought to be a real person, who had lived before the Flood, and whose philosophy had influenced as prestigious individuals as Moses, Plato, and even Jesus Christ, modern scholarship accepts that he was a product of the syncretism associated with the Alexandrian Age, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes circa AD 200, and who served as figure of veneration and authority for the anonymous authors of the mystical and magical texts that have come down to us as the Corpus Hermeticum.

The Corpus Hermeticum had an enormous influence on western thought, and perhaps its most powerful impact was on the Renaissance. We can even say that in many ways it was responsible for the Renaissance itself. A story that the historian Frances Yates tells gives us an idea of just how important a figure Hermes Trismegistus was considered at the time. In 1463, Cosimo de’ Medici, the great Florentine power broker, asked his scribe, Marsilio Ficino, whom Cosimo had just made head of the newly revived Platonic Academy, to translate some texts by Plato from Greek to Latin that had recently come into his possession. But just as Marsilio was about to get to work, Cosimo told him to wait. Some other texts had come into his hand, and Plato would have to be put on the back burner. What was important enough to shove Plato into the backseat? The Corpus Hermeticum. So you can see that Hermes was important indeed, if the father of western philosophy had to be put on hold in deference to him.

In the Asclepius, one of the books making up the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures. I should point out that by “man” Hermes meant “human being” – there was much less confusion about the use of the word “man,” which did not mean “male,” back then. We are creatures of the natural world, Hermes tells Asclepius, of the body and the senses, and as such are subject to all the laws and limitations that come with “living in the material world,” as the title of an old song has it. But we are also inhabitants of another world, that of the mind, the spirit, the soul, or, as we would say today – or at least I do – consciousness. And this world, in essence, is free of the limitations of our other nature. As bodies we occupy a particular space and time. But as the poet William Blake, himself a student of the Hermetic tradition, tells us, “one thought fills immensity.”

The Hermetic creation myth explains how this came about. Briefly, after creating the universe, Nous, or the Universal Mind, decided to create a being like himself so that he could share his creation with him. So he created humanity. I should mention that the idea that we are created in the image of the Universal Mind suggested to many churchmen during the Renaissance that the Hermetic teachings presaged and paralleled the teachings of Christianity, as in that tradition, human beings are also made in the image of their creator. There are other parallels and similarities between Hermeticism and Christianity, and because of this during the Renaissance many enlightened figures within the church argued that the Hermetic teachings should be made part of Christian doctrine. Sadly, they weren’t, and one can only wonder what the history of the church would have been like if they had been.

What happened when man beheld the world that Nous had made? He feel in love with it. And, enamoured of its beauty, he reached down from the heavenly heights in order to embrace it. But his love proved too powerful, as did that of the world for Man – in the Hermetic myth as in many others, the world, Earth, nature, is a woman – and when the two embraced, man lost his awareness of his spiritual origin, or at least his fascination with the world eclipsed this for a while. But just as man took on aspects of the earthly, so too did the world take on aspects of the spiritual. As in all true relationships, they shared parts of themselves with each other. The earth and the whole cosmos absorbed some of man’s celestial nature – we remember he was made in the image of the Universal Mind, his creator – while man absorbed some of the earth’s natural character. The two have been mixed up like this ever since.

Now, like all myths, there is no way to prove that anything like this happened, and of course modern science and our rational minds tell us it is just a story. But the work of myths isn’t to prove something, but to come up with what Plato called a “likely story” to account for things. And what this particular myth accounts for is the fact that, however it came about and whatever the truth about it may be, we nevertheless experience ourselves as creatures of two natures, whether we immediately recognize that we do or not. We are without doubt natural creatures, of flesh and blood, who exist within time and space and who are subject to the same limitations and appetites of other animals. There’s little doubt about that and, as I will show further on, we’ve had more than a few centuries during which some of the best minds of the west have been hammering this message home to us. But we are also creatures of a different sort. However much contemporary science denies it, we have an immaterial, non-physical nature, that is not subject to time and space in the same way as our bodies are. Evidence for this is the consciousness that each of us is engaged with now, listening to this talk – unless, as is often the case, my words are tedious enough to send you to sleep – it’s been known to happen. Each one of us participates in the Universal Mind and so we each are the kind of “dual natured” creature that Hermes Trismegistus tells us we are.

Now, of course, Hermeticism isn’t the only tradition making this claim. We can find it in other spiritual traditions, and I draw on some of them in the book. But it does have an interesting answer to the question why we have two natures. The Gnostics, a sect of early Christians who were contemporaries of the Hermetics, also believed that humanity had “fallen” from a spiritual state and had become “trapped” in the material world. Their response to this was that we needed to escape from this false world and return to the true one. And I might point out that in many ways our time is a very Gnostic one, with our fascination with conspiracy theories and with phenomena such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” creating a sense that reality isn’t as reliable as it used to be. As I write in a book about the postmodern politics of our time, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, it is up for grabs. As the Hermetics did, the Gnostics believed we all still retained a spark of our divine origin, and they sought to awaken this, through inducing ecstatic states in order to achieve what they called gnosis and what the Hermetics, who engaged in similar practices, saw as a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”

But while the Gnostics wanted to escape from the world, the Hermetics sought something different. They wanted to remember their purpose, their mission on the earth. When Asclepius asks Hermes why humans have two natures, Hermes explains that we do so that we can “raise our sight to heaven while we take care of the earth,” and so that we can “love those things that are below us” while we are “beloved by the things above.” Humans, it seems, are a kind of meeting ground of two worlds, something that the seventeenth century mathematician and religious thinker Blaise Pascal remarked on when he said that mankind existed in between the infinitely small and the infinitely large, between the microscopic world of the atoms, and the colossal expanse of the galaxies. But there is more to us that this. We have a body, Hermes tells Asclepius, so that we can “take care of creation.” We have a “corporeal dwelling place” and our two natures are mixed into one, so that we can “wonder at and adore the celestial, while taking care of and managing the things on earth.”

What this suggests is that we find ourselves here, not because of a “fall” from grace, as in the Judeo-Christian religion, or because of the machinations of an evil idiot god, as in the Gnostic tradition, but because we have a particular mission to accomplish, a responsibility to fulfil. In other words, we are here for a reason. We struggle against the limitations of the body and the material world, not in order to escape them, or as punishment for some “original sin,” but in order to embrace the obligations that come with being “caretakers of the cosmos.”

 

Now, needless to say, this is a far cry from how we see ourselves and have been taught to see ourselves by modern science and much of modern culture. We can say that the process through which human beings lost any sense of themselves as having a reason for existing, let alone a particular responsibility in doing so, goes back a few centuries, although, to be sure, throughout history there have always been voices announcing the futility of existence, and of our own in particular. All is vanity, Ecclesiastes tells us, and Sophocles, the great Greek dramatist, tells us it is best to die young or not to be born at all. We can say  our current assessment of ourselves as not particularly significant inhabitants of a not particularly significant world began when Copernicus announced that the sun did not revolve around the earth. We were not, it turned out, at the centre of things. Oddly enough, Copernicus himself was a student of the Hermetic philosophy, as were other makers of the modern scientific worldview, such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, something I can only mention here. (Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity, and gravity itself is an “occult,” that is, unseen power.) This particular ball continued to roll and by the nineteenth century it had picked up considerable speed and was pretty much unstoppable. Darwin showed us that we were no different from the other animals. Marx showed us that the real motor of human history was economics, that is, our earthly, material reality. Nietzsche showed that power was behind human motivation, although he did have an idea of human greatness in his notion of the “superman,” again, something I can only mention. Freud said sex was behind everything, and thoroughly rejected any higher appetites.

And while this was going on, in a variety of ways, modern science was busy at work reducing human beings to machines, stimulus response robots, devoid of free will and pushed and pulled solely by influences coming from the environment. Any notion of a nature other than our physical, material one was by this time utterly abandoned, cast into the rubbish bin of ideas, along with everything else having to do with religion, spirit, or mind.

This view of our existence was summed up with scientific rigour by the French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who argued that chance and chance alone produced not only humanity but the world it finds itself in. There is no reason behind anything. As Stephen Hawking said in a very popular book a few years ago, the universe “just happened,” and there was no need for any God or Universal Mind to bring it or us about. As another physicist, Steve Weinberg, remarked, the more we understand the universe, the more it seems pointless. And although existentialism and astrophysics are, no pun intended, worlds apart, they seem to share a common theme. As Jean Paul Sartre, the most famous existential philosopher, remarked, it is “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die.”  Monod, Hawking, and Weinberg say essentially the same thing.

This story is well known and of course there have been many who have rejected it and argued against it. I draw on quite a few of them in my book. But what is new and what prompted me to write my book, is that this tradition of encouraging what the British writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called the “fallacy of insignificance” regarding human existence has in recent times found a very vocal if paradoxical fellow traveller.

 

One of the curious ironies of the rise of modern science and technology is that while it argues that human life and the universe itself is insignificant, purposeless, and meaningless, it has also placed into this insignificant creature’s hands an enormous power. The science that tells us that we are meaningless accidents in an accidental universe has also made us masters of the world. By treating nature as mere stuff that we can control – voiding it of any spiritual character – we have gained a fantastic power over it. And it is precisely this power, and our evident abuse of it, that has triggered a response that in a different way, seeks to minimise the importance of human beings, albeit for well-meaning if, from my perspective, muddle-headed reasons.

Many people concerned about the environment and wanting to “save the planet” argue that in order to do this, human beings must be made to see that they are no more important than any other life form. Our “anthropocentric” view has led to the despoiling of the earth and the extinction of other creatures, who have as much right – even more, some would say – to exist as we do. We are, they say, no more significant or “special” than slime moulds or giraffes or the animalcules in a puddle of rain water. Even more, we are much more dangerous than they or other organisms because of our mistaken idea of ourselves as somehow unique and significant. It is this that has led to the environmental crises that threaten the future of not only mankind but the earth itself. Climate change is only the most recent expression of this and the Extinction Rebellion movement only the most recent response to it.

This assessment of human importance is behind the kind of “enlightened misanthropy,” as we might call it, that is voiced by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First! and other similar “biocentric” organisations, biocentric meaning “life centred” as opposed to human centred. (We could say that they prefer a “biosophy” rather than an anthroposophy.) According to Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, we are all animals, and “an individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear.” Foreman goes on to add that he and many others would actually argue that the Grizzly Bear has more claim to any kind of importance than we do. How Foreman or anyone else could argue this isn’t exactly clear, given their premise that all life is of equal significance, but let’s leave that for now.

We may think that extreme remarks from radical activists can have little effect on the general consciousness of society. They are ranting from the side lines. But much of the rhetoric they employ is echoed by more respected thinkers. One such is the social philosopher John Gray, who in a series of popular and highly respected books has presented a misanthropy that, to my mind, frequently borders on the fanatical. Although couched in “environment friendly” language, his books really express little more than Gray’s profound dislike for human beings. For Gray, from the perspective of Gaia, the earth, “human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould.” But while this can be seen as expressing solidarity with other biocentrists, Gray goes further. We are not homo sapiens, as we narcissistically believe ourselves to be, but homo rapiens. We may agree that, yes, we have abused our power and laid waste to much of the earth, but is there nothing redeeming about us? For Gray, the answer is “No.” “A glance at any human,” he tells us “should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being.” We are simply a species that is highly successful at ravaging others. We need to jettison all pretence to being anything other than this – that is, to any “higher” notions of our humanity. It is, in fact, precisely this that has allowed us to rampage as we have. It is time, Gray says, to see ourselves as we truly are.

Now Gray is as entitled to his opinion about humanity as anyone else is entitled to theirs. But in our time, faced as it is with enormous challenges, of which our environmental crises make up a large portion, it seems more responsible, honest, and serious to agree with him, at least to the popular mind. The spirit of the time seems to compel us to embrace a collective mea culpa and to own up to our crimes. To not do this, and to argue that, even with all the damage we have done, there is still something different about human existence and our role here, that sets us apart, seems somehow aberrant. As a case in point let me mention that when, a few months ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames, I posted some remarks on social media expressing my sadness at the tragedy. While many shared my feeling, more than a few people wrote to say that fires destroy forests every day and that they are more of a loss than a church. Why was everyone so concerned about some cathedral? I certainly agree that a burnt forest is a loss, but while there are many trees there is only one Notre Dame. But the people making these remarks remained adamantly pro-forest and anti-cathedral and nothing I could say seemed to shake that opinion.

Now, while I in no way am suggesting that we shouldn’t face the crises that our own success as a species has created, I am also wary of the kind of indulgence in guilt and the peculiar self-satisfaction that it can bring. It strikes me that we live in a time when, because of our feelings of guilt, someone like Gray can be seen as an important, profound thinker, precisely because he makes us feel so guilty. We live in a “confessional” time, as any viewer of television talk shows knows. People today love to admit to their mistakes, their sins, their transgressions, and to do so in front of as large as audience as possible. But while they seem to be admitting their failures, it strikes me that there is a certain pride in doing so. Paradoxically, admitting your sins can be just another way of announcing your importance. And admitting your helplessness can be a way of avoiding your responsibilities and letting yourself off the hook. As the eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said, such humility may be admirable, but it may also be an excuse to accept the laziness and cowardice that allows one to avoid the responsibilities that come with being “the highest in the universe,” and a way of shirking the effort and suffering that taking on those responsibilities entails.

 

I mentioned that in my book I draw on other spiritual traditions along with the Hermetic, in order to express my sense of ourselves as cosmic caretakers. One such tradition is the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. In the tradition of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, human beings have a profound responsibility: we are a kind of cosmic repairman. In Luria’s creation myth, when God created the universe, he really made a mess of things. The sephiroth or vessels of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, that were supposed to contain the divine energies, were either not strong enough to contain them or too shallow to hold them. So what happened was not a big bang but a big spill, with the divine energies overflowing and getting mixed up with each other and with lower forces and energies, what we call matter. The result is the world we live in, with sparks of the divine trapped in the dense unwieldy world of matter – the similarity to the Hermetic account can be seen. In this world, “nothing is where it should be,” everything is jumbled up, and because of this we experience pain and suffering, and the divine energies, which are really one, are fragmented into opposites, at war with each other: good and evil, male and female, light and dark, and so on. Our job is to unite the fragments, reconcile the opposites, and put the cosmic Humpty Dumpty back together again.

How did we get landed with this responsibility? When he saw the mess He had made, God realized he needed help in sorting things out and so he created a helper, that is, us, humanity. We are here to perform what is called tikkun, which means “repair.” Our job is to release the divine spark trapped in the shards of matter, freeing them from the negative energies, known as klipoth. We find the sparks everywhere; in nature, in others, and in ourselves. As we perform tikkun through acts of awareness, kindness, and love – what the eighteenth century scientist and religious thinker Emmanuel Swedenborg called “doing the good that you know” – we clean up the mess God made and return the world to the state it was supposed to be in before He made a wreck of things.

Failure to perform tikkun means that we fail at our task as humans. And it is only by performing tikkun that we can be “fully human.” This idea of being “fully human” is not one that we easily embrace. It places a great burden and responsibility on us. After all, it is no small matter to be responsible for cleaning up after God and repairing the universe. It is no wonder then that many of us, if not most, shy away from this obligation. Faced with the great task placed before us, we say “What can I do? I am only human”

 

Recognizing the difference between being “fully human” and “only human” wasn’t limited to sixteenth century Kabbalists. In fact it formed the central idea of one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Abraham Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, started out as a Freudian but he soon became disenchanted with Freud’s approach. One reason he did was that the only people he met in his practice were sick ones. He grew tired of this as it understandably made him depressed. Maslow then hit upon what at the time seemed a radical idea. He decided that he wanted to study healthy people instead, to develop a psychology based on health, not illness. He did and he came up with some remarkable results. One was that all the healthy people he studied seemed to have what he came to call “peak experiences,” sudden moments of joy, happiness, fulfilment, that seemed to come for no reason at all, spontaneously, out of the blue. These were not “mystical” experiences per se, although they could lead to something like that. They were simply sudden realizations that life was good, that we all have an enormous amount to be grateful for, simply because we are alive. They were a kind of sudden, vivid remembering of the good we already have, a waking up to it. These peaks brought great self-confidence, a sense of strength and a deep feeling of purpose, something very different from the depression, anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness that Maslow had come to discover in the sick people he had studied. The “peak experience” gave Maslow a standard by which to gauge psychic health. They also provided a way of recognizing what being “fully human” would be like.

Maslow recognized that, psychologically, human beings seem to climb what he called a “ladder of needs.” Our first needs are the basic ones for food and drink. Then with these met, we need shelter, a home of some kind. Then we have a need for love, companionship, a relationship to others. When this is satisfied our need to be recognized and respected, for self-esteem, to be thought well of, becomes active. All of these needs are what Maslow called “deficiency needs,” because they are concerned with something we lack. I need food, a home, love, and self-esteem and feel their lack if they are missing. But Maslow found that in some people – not all,  but many – there are other, higher needs, what he called “meta-needs.” These are needs not based on a “lack” of something, but on the need to use our powers and abilities in some creative way. They are needs based on what we have, not on what we are missing. They are creative needs. They express the need to “self-actualize,” as Maslow put it, to become fully ourselves. In other words, to become “fully human.”

Although Maslow did not speak of tikkun, the way in which he describes a “self-actualized” person seems in many ways to parallel what a person who performed tikkun would be like. Self-actualized people are, paradoxically, not obsessed with themselves; they have a profound interest in the objective world and do not like being trapped in their personality. They are not in competition with others. Although they generally strive to be the best they can be at their work, whatever it is, it is not in order to be “No. 1,” but for the sake of the work itself; doing it well is its own reward. They are not interested in material gain or power or dominance, and in general are less concerned with their ego and have a sense of humour about themselves. They are more concerned with what is going on inside themselves than in what is happening outside and are content with simple pleasures and are tolerant of others. Although they are always striving to be more – they are what the philosopher Nietzsche called “self-overcomers” – they are happy with who they are. They accept themselves but paradoxically are not complacent.

Self-actualisers are also very disciplined and self-motivating and are generally good workers. They are not lazy and are not afraid of challenges. In fact they thrive on them. Maslow believed that we all have the potential to actualise ourselves, to be “all that we can be” and to become fully human. He also argued that if we fail to do this, the consequences can be dire. He famously said that if we deliberately plan on being less than we are capable of being, we will be unhappy for the rest of our life. Maslow’s vision was the furthest from the Freudian one of sick people that he started out from, but he was dismayed late in his life to discover that many people, it seemed, did fail to self-actualise, and did so, it seemed, on purpose. He once asked the students of one of his classes how many of them expected to become outstanding in their fields, to go on to do great work, to be creative successes? When hardly anyone raised their hand, he asked “Well, if not you, then who? Someone will. Why not you?” They had no answer to that. Indeed, we always think that someone else will be great, creative, successful, but not ourselves. Why?

Why do most of believe that we will not be great, or if we do think so, shy from admitting it? Peer pressure, of course. But this only begs the question of why our peers assume they will be mediocrities and chide those who think otherwise. But if Maslow is correct, we will be mediocrities because we decide to be. We choose to be less than we are capable of being on purpose. Why? Because we are afraid of the responsibilities and obligations being all we can be entail. Maslow christened this propensity in many of us to avoid actualizing ourselves “the Jonah Complex,” based on the Biblical story of Jonah, who tried to avoid the destiny God had in store for him. As we know, Jonah tried his best to avoid his destiny as a prophet, but in the end he had to accept it. He might have saved himself and God a lot of trouble if had done so from the start.

 

People who are subject to the Jonah Complex do not wish to be “fully human” and try to be satisfied with being “only human.” They try to avoid the destiny that their nature compels them to fulfil. In fact, they can be quite militant about this, accusing those who do want to actualize their potentials of being elitist, of thinking of themselves as somehow “special,” somehow “better” than others. This disparaging of those who try to be “fully human” by those content to be “only human,” is an expression of what the twentieth century German philosopher Max Scheler called resentment, an attempt by the “have nots” to make the “haves” feel guilty about themselves – the “haves” in this sense not people of material but of inner wealth. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1970 – Maslow was concerned that in the near future there would be a kind of “uprising” of non-self-actualisers against the self-actualisers, fuelled by a kind of “actualisation envy.” And it strikes me that in many ways, something like this informs a great deal of our postmodern culture. Many years ago, the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine wrote an essay called “The Use of the Beautiful,” in which she lamented the loss of the beautiful in modern culture, and suggested that this was in part motivated by a resentment against the high standard that beauty sets, and which we find difficult to meet. Instead of striving to approximate it as best we can, we instead dismiss it as oppressive, unrealistic, stuffy, old fashioned or what have you, and are happy instead with “what we like.” Much of modern art, beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal and including Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, can be seen as an attack on the idea of the beautiful, and on the idea of art itself. In the nineteenth century, the idea behind mass education was that it would help raise the average person up to a higher level. What seems to have happened is the opposite, with the higher being brought down to the lower. In many, if not most universities these days, the idea of the “great books” as agents of self-improvement is laughed at when it is not militantly attacked, and PhDs and other high degrees are offered in “popular culture.” I know this because I have spoken at more than one academic conference about this. My usual remark about this development is that back in the day, we made popular culture, we didn’t study it.

This desire to remain average and to be “just like everybody else” also informs the “good enough” ethos that makes up a large part of our contemporary sense of identity. We no longer strive to be good but to be “good enough,” a “good enough” parent, or a “good enough” husband or wife. In one sense, this is a reaction against the pressures placed on us to be “perfect,” the “perfect” mother or father or husband or wife. But there is a difference between being “perfect” and being “perfectly”, that is “fully” ourselves. “Perfect” is an abstract standard, an outside criterion we are asked to meet. Being fully yourself isn’t. That standard comes from within. It is the same challenge that the psychologist Jung called “individuating,” “becoming who you are,” with the emphasis on “you.” We decide what standards we will set for ourselves and which we will meet. What Maslow and Jung discovered is that for many of us, while we recognise what we could be, we nevertheless settle for something less, for being “good enough” versions of ourselves. And what is true of us as individuals is also true for the culture and society at large. Nietzsche saw this in his bible of self-overcoming, Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he spoke of the “last men.” This was a society and culture of the future, that embraced the “fallacy of insignificance” happily,  rejected all heroism and greatness, and was content with mediocrity, “good enoughness,” “only humanness”, creature comforts and an easy life. It was in many ways a society and culture not vastly different from our own. Today, the most popular thing on television are “reality TV” shows, in which people “just like us” are the stars. There are even television shows about people watching television shows that are about people “just like” those watching them. In Orwell’s 1984 the government kept the populace under constant surveillance. Now we do it ourselves and even jokingly call the most famous reality TV show Big Brother.

 

One sign that suggests we are living in something like the society that Nietzsche envisioned is the emphasis today placed on groups, on communities, and the suspicion that the individual who falls outside these groups is somehow not quite right. Self-actualisers, “individuaters,” those who are striving to become who they are, and not as the group is, are seen as selfish, as “lone nutters”, as somehow aberrant, and more and more the message is that we all need to belong to one group or another. If we don’t, there must be something wrong with us. But while self-actualisers are not misanthropes – quite the contrary – they are not particularly gregarious. Contrary to the old song, people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world. They often have nothing going on in their lives, and need other people to fill them up. What many people talk about most of the time is other people. Without them, they’d have little to say. Not self-actualisers. Often self-actualisers meet the psychological profile of the individuals Colin Wilson calls “Outsiders,” people whose need for meaning and purpose – “meta-needs,” according to Maslow – can’t be met by belonging or identifying with some group or other, but by a profound acceptance of a kind of solitariness, the solitude needed for creative work. Becoming yourself is lonely work, Jung tells us. It is the hardest thing we can do and no one can do it for us. Those who try to become themselves are often afflicted with a sense of guilt, with pangs of what Nietzsche called the “herd instinct.” Without doubt we are social animals. But those who are trying to become “fully human” often must give up the warmth and comfort of the herd and strike out on their own. And the price they pay for doing so is often guilt, isolation, and loneliness.

I should say that at the same time as there is an anti-individual sentiment today, there is also a kind of celebration of the average person, the common man or woman, exactly as he or she is, with no need to be any better. We all want respect. We all demand it and get angry if it is not immediately forthcoming. We are all special, notwithstanding that in such an arrangement no one is special, as being special, by definition, means standing out from the average. We all want to be applauded, not for any particular accomplishment or achievement, but simply for being us, as we are, run of the mill and rank and file, with no particular claim to any exceptional gift. In the words of another old song, these days, everybody is a star. Popular culture endorses this view. One sign of this is that more times than not, people of exceptional intellectual accomplishment are portrayed in films and television as somehow deeply flawed. So the contemporary Sherlock Holmes – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – is shown as practically autistic. There is something wrong with him, unlike the Everyman Watson, who is “just like us.” This is a far cry from Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character.

At the same time, the widespread addiction to social media, in which people post practically everything about themselves for all to see, is a sign, I think, that western society has reached Maslow’s self-esteem level on the ladder of needs. We are all pretty fascinating individuals, just as we are, and we want everyone to know this and to agree. And while this may suggest a kind of collective narcissism, it may also suggest that there are some of us out there who are moving into the level of the meta-needs, the need to self-actualise. That is my hope. These are the people I call the “creative minority.” But unlike those still obsessed with self-esteem, they do not broadcast their activities, mostly because they are too busy being active with them. They do not draw attention to themselves nor do they demand that everyone respect them. They are not particularly interested in what other people think about them, and they do not think very much about other people. They do not attend rallies or demonstrations or shout for this cause or another. They do not occupy Wall Street. Instead, they occupy their minds.

 

And here we come round to the question of exactly how we can take care of the cosmos. The subtitle of my book is “Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World.” One reader, a friend and fellow writer, was a bit put off by this, thinking that it suggested that the book was yet another call for ecological and environmental responsibility. I in no way suggest, in the book or anywhere else, that the more immediate ways of taking care of our particular patch of the cosmos, our earth, should be ignored, and I endorse them wholeheartedly. But while a great deal has been said and needs to be said about taking care of our physical environment, there is another environment which, it seems to me, doesn’t receive the attention that it should. I mean our inner environment, our inner world, that other nature that the Universal Mind in its wisdom has saddled us with. It is in relation to this that I speak of our other environment, our outer world, the physical one, as unfinished. To make clear what I mean by this will require some explanation. Let me see if in the time remaining to me I may be able to make a start on this.

One of the central tenets – if not the central one – of the Hermetic teaching, and of the other philosophies and teachings making up what is known as the Western “inner” or “esoteric” tradition, and which I have written about in several books, is that in it mind, spirit, or, as we would say today, consciousness is paramount. What does this mean? It means that unlike our contemporary scientific accounts which put the physical, material world in first place, and strive to derive our inner, metaphysical or spiritual world from it, the situation is actually reversed. For these traditions, mind, spirit, consciousness occupies first place and in some way that we do not fully understand, the physical, external world is derived from it. As the philosopher of language, friend of C. S. Lewis, and interpreter of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield succinctly put it, “Interior is anterior,” that is, it is earlier than the exterior, it comes before it. Although there have always been those who took the materialist stance as the correct one – our idea of the atom goes back to the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus – it has really only been since the seventeenth century that mind has lost the prestige it used to have, and has been seen as something that needs to be “explained” in terms of material processes. A book of mine, A Secret History of Consciousness, is devoted to taking this view to task. This development is itself part of a long process, an evolution of consciousness, that I have written about in this book and some others and forms, as it were, the common thread among all my books. What this suggests is that the materialist view, which has been dominant for the last few centuries, is not the final view or verdict on the nature of reality. It has been arrived at historically and is itself subject to change. And I would say that in recent times it has shown signs that it is past its “sell by” date, and that it’s shelf life is running out, if it isn’t already past due. Developments like deconstructionism, postmodernism and other, earlier changes in our worldview brought about by quantum physics, suggest as much. What will arise to take its place remains to be seen. We may be experiencing the first stages of the breakdown of the materialist, rationalist paradigm – this is what the philosopher Jean Gebser, whom I have written about in some of my books, argues – but it is not clear what it is making way for. That may not be clear for some time. But there may be some indications available to us now.

 

I haven’t mentioned Rudolf Steiner in this talk, except for name-dropping him a moment ago. But one of the strangest things Steiner said – and, depending upon your perspective, he said a number of strange things – was that the future physical condition of the planet will depend on the thoughts that people have now. So, according to Steiner, what we are thinking now will in some way influence the physical character of the earth in the future. Indeed, as Steiner said this a century ago, according to him, the thoughts of the people he said it to have presumably had something to do with the world as it is today. Whatever we may think of this, we must admit, somewhat radical remark, its essence is that the mind, our minds, affect reality. This is certainly a way of expressing Owen Barfield’s dictum that “interior is anterior.” We can say then, as I have in some interviews, that according to this view, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the mind doesn’t stay there. It reaches out into the world and changes it.

Now this is as radically other than what our accepted scientific tradition tells us as we can get. Since the philosopher John Locke stated it in the seventeen century, our mainstream intellectual tradition has accepted that “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” According to this view we are born, as Locke says, as tabula rasas, “blank slates,” empty until experience writes upon us. We are like unfurnished flats until we go out to Ikea to buy stuff to and fill them with. But what Steiner and the tradition he belongs to, which includes people like Plato, Goethe, Jung and many others, says is the opposite. We do not come into the world with empty heads. The world that we mistakenly believe writes upon us is itself blank, empty, until our minds give it form. Whether it is the Platonic Forms or Jung’s archetypes or the categories of Immanuel Kant, for this tradition, something in our minds reaches out and gives shape and contour to the raw material of experience. The world that Locke believed writes upon our minds is itself written upon by them. This is what Steiner meant when he said that we are “not only here in order to form for ourselves a picture of the finished world.” No. We “cooperate in bringing the world into existence.” And as he added: “The content of reality is only the reflection of the content of our minds.” In other words, no mind, no world.

The Corpus Hermeticum tells us exactly the same thing. As the Universal Mind tells Hermes Trismegistus, “within God everything lies in the imagination.” For the Hermetics, the imagination was everything. It was capable of remarkable feats; it’s abilities transcended the limits of our earthly nature easily. “Command your soul to go anywhere,” Hermes is told, “and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and again it is there at once… Order it to fly up to heaven and it will need no wings.” “If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand him. Sense as one within yourself the entire creation… then you can understand God.”

This recognition of the tremendous power of mind or the imagination is at the heart of what, in another book, I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” This knowledge was lost to the mainstream western intellectual tradition round about the time that Locke’s “blank slate” version of the mind came into prominence. But some never lost sight of it. So for the poet William Blake, “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” It is an Infinite and Eternal world where exist “the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in the Vegetable Glass of Nature.” (And here we see Blake contradict Locke outright.) “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination,” Blake insists, echoing the Universal Mind. “In your Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth and all you behold; tho’ it appears Without, it is Within, in your imagination…”

I don’t know if Rudolf Steiner ever mentioned William Blake in any of his lectures, but it is clear that they were both speaking about the same thing. But Steiner did not have to know of Blake, as both were speaking out of the same tradition, the one that, as Owen Barfield, who did know both visionaries, said has consciousness or mind taking precedence over matter, that has the “interior” as “anterior.” All three wanted to awaken their readers to the insight that the world we see around us is rooted in some profound yet mysterious way in our interior worlds. Although the world we see when we open our eyes “appears without,” it is really “within.” And again, in some mysterious way, this inner world is projected out of our consciousness and, as Steiner says, co-operates in bringing the world into existence.

Now, we might say that Blake, Steiner, and Barfield were poets and visionaries and so might be expected to grant the imagination more power and importance than it might warrant. Yet in recent times, something as rigorous and unpoetical as neuroscience seems to confirm what they are saying. In his important book The Master and His Emissary, the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist reboots the right brain/left brain discussion that had petered out, after an initial excitement, some time in the 1990s. What McGilchrist did was to show that what was important about the differences between our two cerebral hemispheres was not so much in what they do, as had initially been suggested, but in how they do it. Put briefly, our right cerebral hemisphere, which is the older of the two and the one McGilchrist calls “the Master,” presents a global, holistic, but vague, fuzzy “big” picture of reality, one geared toward overall meaning and connectedness. The left brain, or “Emissary’s” job is to unpack this global picture, to finetune it, to subject the whole to an analysis that distinguishes its parts. So we can say that while the right brain sees the forest, the left sees the individual trees, and also the individual leaves on one tree, and even the veins running through each leaf.

But what links McGilchrist’s work to what we are talking about here, is his suggestion that in conveying the “big”, global picture of reality, the right brain helps “bring it into being,” performing the task that Steiner places on each of us. He also suggests that while the left brain, because of its analytical mode, is geared toward controlling reality, “mastering” it – and the left brain, let me say, is the cerebral hemisphere responsible for the scientific and technological wonders that have made us the dominant species on the planet, thereby creating the crises that face us today – the right brain is more concerned with caring about and for reality. As McGilchrist says, if one brain is responsible for our “exploitation” of the world – the sort of behaviour that a misanthrope like John Gray takes argument with – the other is more of a “guardian” of reality. As I say in my book, a guardian, a repairman, and a caretaker all seem to share some similar functions. So it would seem that according to McGilchrist, at least in this regard, contemporary neuroscience and Hermeticism and Kabbalah have much in common.

Given this, a word of caution does not seem out of place. If the world outside us depends in some mysterious way on the one inside us, we would be wise to aware of what is going on inside our heads, because, as Steiner, Blake, Barfield and split-brain psychology seem to tells us, sooner or later we will run into it in the outer world. That we create our own reality is, of course, a commonplace of much New Age thought. It has by this time become something of a cliché. But clichés become clichés precisely because they have a basis in truth. Blake’s one time teacher, Swedenborg, taught him and the rest of us that heaven and hell are not places we will go to after our death, but are within us now. We create them with our own attitudes and inhabit them long before our body dies. Jean Paul Sartre may have believed that hell is “other people,” but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he knew, as well as heaven, is ourselves. While much of the attraction to the idea that we “create our own reality” is motivated by using the imagination to acquire health, wealth and power, the deeper appreciation of this insight is geared toward understanding how we are responsible for the reality that already surrounds us, how we unconsciously project our fears and desires out into the world, and mistakenly blame others or a cruel fate for what is really our own handiwork. Poets, who are always more aware of the power of the imagination than the rest of us, have always known of this and have spoken words of warning. Goethe tells us to beware of what we wish for in youth, for we will get it in middle age. And W. B. Yeats, who took the imagination seriously enough to discipline his own through his serious study of the western inner tradition, tells us that “whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.”

If remarks like these, urbane and dramatic as they are, were solely rooted in a poet’s fancy, we could accept or reject them as we wished. But when we are told that the magnificent organ lodged within our skulls – to date, the most complex thing in the known universe –  is somehow responsible for bringing the world we see each day into being, we may be excused for giving such pronouncements more consideration. And when to this is added the wisdom of a long tradition which places our consciousness, our minds and imagination, at the fount of creation, then the idea that, in ways we do not fully understand, we are indeed caretakers of the cosmos, guardians of the world, or repairmen of the universe, we may be forgiven if we begin to take the idea seriously. This is not to celebrate our importance, or to applaud our significance, to pat our mutual backs in smug self-satisfaction. Far from it. It is to recognise that we each have a responsibility, an obligation, to actualise within ourselves the power that can help move the universe along, and that by becoming fully human, we can do our part to make the world a better place for our being in it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Transcendent Functions, Peak Experiences, and a Different Way of Knowing

Here are links to two lectures I’ve given recently. One, on “Jung’s Search for Meaning,” was given for the Weekend University here in London last summer. The other, “A Different Way of Knowing,” is the first part of the three part seminar on Lost Knowledge of the Imagination I’ve been giving through Nura Learning. I imagine a lecture should speak for itself, but here’s the general idea: In the first I try to bring together Jung’s notion of the “transcendent function”   – the “lift” the psyche gets when the conscious and unconscious minds reach an agreement – with Maslow’s “peak experiences” and Colin Wilson’s Faculty X. In the second, I take the class through the first chapter in Lost Knowledge, trying to bring out exactly what a “different way of knowing” might be like. You should be able to take it from there.

Learning the Lost Knowledge

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

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

 

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

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

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

Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

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

Seeing the Invisible: Art and the Occult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid. p. 104.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ocultura Conference in Spain

Here’s a link to the website for the Ocultura Conference in Leon, Spain, which I’ll be speaking at in October. It promises to be quite an event. I’ll be joining Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, authors of The Templar RevelationThe Forbidden Universe and other books, Javier Sierra, author of the best-selling The Secret Super and other titles, as well as other speakers for several days devoted to exploring the influence of occult ideas on modern culture. I’ll be talking about my book Politics and the Occult, which has recently appeared in a Spanish edition. Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, which I recently submitted to my publisher, and which will be published in May 2018, takes up where Politics and the Occult leaves off.

Dark Star Rising

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

The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Floris Books has posted the cover art for my new book, The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, which is due out in October of this year. Amazon has it listed as coming out in January 2017, but this is inaccurate. I’ll be posting excerpts from the book closer to publication, but for now let me say that it is a kind of distillation of some of the main themes of The Secret Teachers of the Western World and also of Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin WilsonThe central idea is that of imagination as a cognitive faculty; that is, not as something concerned with ‘make believe’ but with a deeper perception, grasp, and understanding of reality. Oddly enough, as I was writing the book the whole question of ‘reality’ became a hot news item, with our descent into a ‘post-truth’ world make of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. And soon after finishing it I was commissioned to do a new book about precisely that, about how ‘reality’ seems to have become peculiarly flexible and pliable these days, and subject to the influence of – the imagination. Some kind of sychronicity seems to be at work – or am I letting my imagination get the better of me? You can find out some time next year when Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump sees the light of day.