Tag: occult

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Midsummer Roundup

Here are some interviews and reviews from recent months.

I was glad to see in a review of Dark Star Rising that I avoid “all that cheap and vapid capitalising on personal celebrity status, invariably zeroing in on low hanging fruit of negligible import, which is all too common in the field of popular entertainment and image marketing.” It’s true, you know.

Here’s a conversation I had with Christina Harrington of Treadwell’s Bookshop here in London about my new book The Return of Holy Russia.

At Thoth Hermes.com I have officially been declared a “living philosopher,” no mean feat, especially if you are trying to make a living out of philosophy.

Here’s another conversation a la Russe, with Greg Carlwood at The Higherside Chats.

Here’s a chat with Luke Dodson who, among other things, is the great grandson of J.B. Priestely, whom I’ve been writing about recently in my current work in progress, a book about precognitive dreams. Priestley was a “time-haunted man,” as evidenced by his still very readable and revelatory book Man and Time.

Here’s a review of The Return of Holy Russia by Stephen Greenleaf.

And if you are an absolute glutton for all things Russian, here’s another conversation about Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky,and what Tsar Vladimir is up to these days.

Spasibo!

Holy Russia, Aeon Bytes, and Ends of Days

Here’s short notice of two live interviews about my new book The Return of Holy Russia.

Tonight, 15 May, at 9:00 PM UK time, I’ll be speaking with Michael Deacon about the book on his You Tube program End of Days

And tomorrow, 16 May, at 1:00 PM Central time, I’ll be speaking with Miguel Connor at Aeon Bytes about the book too.

Also, here’s a link to an interview I did about the book with Jeffrey Mishlove at the New Thinking Allowed.

Hoping you all are safe and well in these unusual times.

 

 

Q&A, Observing the Observer, and Some Lost Knowledge

On May 8th – White Lotus Day for Madame Blavatsky fans – I’ll be doing a free online Q&A session hosted by Kensington Central Library, from 6:30 to 7:30 PM, GMT. You can ask about my work, or practically anything, although I can’t guarantee I’ll have the answers.

In the meantime, here’s a link to my latest article for the Secular Heretic. It’s called “The Observer Observed” and looks at the effect of Galileo’s bifurcation of reality into two halves, the “objective” world, which science considers the only “real” one, and our “subjective” world of value and meaning which, since it can’t be measured, is considered somehow less real. Not to fear, Goethe comes to rescue – but I’ll leave you to discover exactly how…

And here’s a last minute reminder that tomorrow, April 25, I’ll be giving the second talk in my three part series for the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies. This talk and the next (on May 9th) will look at my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. The talk starts at 10:00 AM PST – 6:00 GMT – and continues until 11:30. If you’ve polished all the silver and are considering possibly shaving your cat, you might enjoy some time exploring the inner world which is always open to us, lockdown or not.

Lost Knowledge with Jung the Mystic – and a Dark Star

I’ll be speaking about my books Jung the Mystic and Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at three Saturday Salons hosted by the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies. (Odd, just as I wrote “Salome,” the announcer on BBC Radio 3 – their classical station – commented on Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera… That’s synchronicity for you.) The dates are April 11 and 25, and May 9. The talks are on Saturday mornings, 10:00 AM PST, which is 6:00 PM GMT. The Salome Institute is offering a 3 for 2 deal. If you’re tired of looking at cat videos, this might be a surprising change.

I’m also talking about my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump at an online event hosted by the Science and Medical Network. This starts at 7:30 PM GMT on 6 April.

I hope everyone is staying safe. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been looking over my dream journals of several years – going back to the late 1980s and early 90s – and in a dream from 1998, I am told to “Just stay home. There’s no reason to go out. Just stay home, where it’s safe.” Here’s the link. I don’t know if this counts as a precognitive dream – that’s the focus of my next book – but it is certainly quite a coincidence.