Tag: politics

Trickle Down Metaphysics

Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump

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

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

An Untimely Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Values Old and New

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

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

The Uncanny Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgetfulness of Being

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

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

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

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

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

A Wrong Turn at Plato

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

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

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

Inauthentic Being

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

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

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

Dismantling Western Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstruction Sets

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

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

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

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

The Absence of Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmodernity Ho!

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

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

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

Reality is Up For Grabs

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

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

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

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

The Party’s Over

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

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

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

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

Trickle Down Metaphysics

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

Enter Trump – Finally

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

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

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

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

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

And Now?

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

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

London August 2020

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

[6] Nietzsche 1967 p.3.

[7] Nietzsche 1977 p. 114.

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

[14] Nietzsche 1967 pp3-4.

[15] Ibid. p. 272.

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

[17] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[32] Stern. p. 133.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[41] Barzun 2000.

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

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

[44] Lachman 2018 pp. 47-49.

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

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

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

On the Road Again: Talks in October and November in New York, Montreal, Berlin, and London

Here’s a list of some talks I’ll be giving in North America and Europe in October and November.

October 4-6: I’ll be at the Omega Studios in Rhinebeck, NY, along with Dean Radin, Alex and Allyson Grey, and Regina Meredith for a weekend of Real Magic. Really. Some seats are still available.

October 11-13: I’ll be lighting up at the Black Flame Esoteric Conference in Montreal, Canada, with an impressive array of other speakers, including Helene Arts, Richard Kaczynski, and Shani Oates. Come shine in the darkness.

October 15: I will be talking about my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump at the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, in NYC’s Greenwich Village. Room 106, 244 Greene Street [between Washington and Waverly Place]

October 16: I will be talking about my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in some other old stomping grounds, NYC’s East Village.

October 24: I will be talking about my book The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters at Highgate Cemetery in North London as part of the London Month of the Dead festivities. Come and discover why and how writers have been cashing in their chips throughout the centuries.

October 31-November 3: I will be giving the keynote talk at the Occulture Conference in Berlin, Germany. Sicher sehr esoterisch…

November 25: I’ll be talking about Esoteric London as part of the London History Festival at Kensington Central Library. Find out what John Dee, Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky and other esoteric characters did in the Big Smoke.

November 30: I’ll be joining Richard Tarnas, Mark Vernon, David Lorimer and other speakers for a day exploring ideas about the evolution of consciousness at Colet House, where Ouspensky held his meetings in the 1930s. Come to Evolving Consciousness: Spiritual Experience in a Secular Age.

Ouspensky, Italy, and Symbolon

My latest interview with Jeffrey Mishlove on his excellent Thinking Allowed site is on the life and work of P.D. Ouspensky, one of my heroes. I apologize for the echo effect on my voice; apparently it’s a problem with the acoustics in my living room. I can’t move so I will look for some other remedy. If anyone has any suggestions, please pass them on.

I’m heading off to Italy tomorrow for a brisk three-day book tour, promoting the Italian edition of Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. It looks like quite an active itinerary. I suspect I’ll see as much of Rome as I can in the cab from the airport to the hotel and then to the interviews. Then there’s the train to Milan, and then one to Turin, where Nietzsche’s mind finally snapped and he was taken off to the caring but not particularly understanding ministrations of his sister. Poor Nietzsche.

At the end of the month I’ll be speaking about the lost knowledge of the imagination at Symbolon, a conference on symbols and symbolic thinking held in Gilching, Germany. I’ll be there with my friends and colleagues Rudiger Sunner, a filmmaker from Berlin, and the artist Martin Weyers, as well as many other people I look forward to meeting. It promises to be a good gathering – dare I say an Eranos for a new generation?

Dark Stars Over Italy, Crowley Again, and Intellectual Diversity

This month I’m heading to Italy for a three-day book tour, promoting the Italian edition of Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump in Rome, Milan, and Turin. As you might expect I’m excited about this. The book seems to be getting some attention in the Italian media – at least I’ve been interviewed by Andriano Ercolani for the cultural blog Minima et Moralia (readers of Theodore Adorno will no doubt recognize the title) and by Giulia Villoresi for the newspaper Repubblica. I’m including the interviews here in English for the benefit of my non-Italian readers.

Also, here are links to two recent video interviews. One is with John Tangney for his Intellectual Diversity Podcast. I talk about my experiences in academia and as a freelance intellectual – an endangered species by all accounts. The other is the latest installment of my ongoing series of interviews with Jeffrey Mishlove. This time we tackle Aleister Crowley, who is always good material for discussion.

All the best.

Here is the interview for Reppublica:


1) Did you get a chance to get a feel for Beppe Grillo, the postmodern comedian who brought “the people” in charge in Italy? Did you know he’s ideologically chaotic, racist, megalomaniac, consecrated to business, a conspiracy theorist and a promoter of the occult power of internet?
2) Do you ever think about the coming of a new dictatorship? How and where do you imagine it?
3) Couldn’t it be possible that the Occidental Ego – so materialist, scientist and inner-life killer – is indeed the “root of all evil”, just as Guénon, Evola and Dugin thought?
4) Are there some facts, or events occurred after the release of your book that you wanted to comment in the book? I mean, facts or events that you consider meaningful for your arguments?
5) I apologize in advance if the following question sounds too direct. I don’t often get a chance to ask it to an American intellectual: do you have any doubts about the official line on September 11th?
1. I’ve seen Beppe on news programs here in London. He seems to have had quite a career. If I’m not mistaken, in recent years he has distanced himself from the 5 star movement he founded a decade ago? At least that’s the impression I get from some articles I’ve read. He also seems to have hit quite a few bulls-eyes in his attacks on corruption in government and business. While that is needed it’s a shame that it’s being done in the context of a populist movement that finds itself on the right side of the political spectrum, something that, I’m sure you know, is going on in other places in the world. People like to be entertained – panem et circenses, no?. That’s why we have a Reality TV star as a US president. Putin, we known, entertained an entire nation with a non-stop “virtual reality” created by his spin doctors, characters like Vladislav Surkov, for at least a decade. But where is Beppe these days? Last I saw he had given up on politics. That isn’t unusual today. Demagoguery is more in fashion.
2, A coming new dictatorship? Do you mean in addition to the ones in Russia and Brazil? I have a correspondent in Brazil who is extremely worried about what is happening there. One of the people I refer to in the book, the German historian Oswald Spengler, said that in our age dictators – Caesars in fact! – will be on the rise. Was he right? America is going through a period of fracture and division unlike anything since the 1960s, when I grew up. I think the country is even more divided now. Chaos breeds strong men to arise and bring things to order. We used to think that nothing like a dictatorship or authoritarian government could arise in the US. I don’t think we are quite so sure today. The little I grasp of history suggests that anything is possible – in fact, isn’t that the message of people like Trump and Putin? When I was growing up, the USSR seemed solidly in place and nothing short of a nuclear conflict would have toppled it. Where is it today? I’m working on a book about Russia in fact, and in its millennium long history, the Soviet period is the shortest, a mere 70 years. Anything is possible. One Russian philosopher of the late 19th century, Vladimir Solovyov, wrote a book in 1900 about a coming Antichrist. He isn’t evil per se, but comes to rule the world by giving “the people” what they want, including endless entertainment. We don’t need to take the idea of an Antichrist literally to know that keeping everyone happy is a more efficient way of keeping them in line than any more aggressive means. This is why Huxley’s Brave New World is a more accurate warning of what’s happening today than Orwell’s 1984, which isn’t to say that Big Brother and other Orwellian ideas aren’t a concern. It’s funny, I keep thinking we are living in the world that all those books, like Huxley’s and Orwell’s, warned us about it. But Big Brother and its like are the hottest things on TV.
3, Yes, the western ego – the “me”, as I speak of it in the book – has certainly created quite a few problems. But the kinds of alternatives to it offered by Guenon, Evola, and people like Dugin are certainly no answer to it. All they offer is the polar opposite, the other side of the pendulum swing. I don’t think the answer to the problems generated by the rise of the individual “I” in the west can be met by negating that “I” in favor of some elite, organizing our lives for us – with the best intentions, of course – which is what Guenon and Evola suggest in different ways. Nor will the kind of ego-less communal society that Dugin envisions help. Which is preferable, the dictatorship of the “me” or the dictatorship of the “we”? I believe we have reached a stage in our development at which we have to find a way to bring together the two sides of our being, the rational intellect, and the intuitive inner self that has been sidelined since the rise of science in the 17th century. I am no enemy of science – I worked as a science writer for a prestigious university in California for a time. What I do reject is “scientism,” the faith – which is what it is – that ALL questions about life, reality, existence, etc. can be and MUST be answered via the scientific method. We’ve known since the 18th century that there are parts of human existence – the most important parts – that science simply is unable to accommodate. I mean things like meaning, beauty, truth, freedom, values, etc everything that makes live worth living. We also know that the picture of humankind offered by science only goes so far and that we have all had experiences that science simply won’t accept or tries to explain away. I mean paranormal and mystical experiences. These are a real part of our life, of that I am as sure as I am of the computer I am using to answer these question. But because the “official” accounts continue to reject these things, they have fallen into what we can call our “shadow,” to use a term that Jung made popular. Since Freud we know that what is repressed doesn’t disappear, it only turns up in awkward places. What is happening I think in contemporary life is that these “occult” kinds of things are reappearing in our “shadow,” and since the progressive political movements reject them – as they do all mystical and spiritual sorts of things (religion is the opium of the people, Marx said, and for better or worse, progressive politics tends to focus on material well being) they are being appropriated by the other side. Hence the Alt-Right and their use, apparently, of a kind of magic. I should also say that the West itself has a long tradition of thinkers, poets, writers, and artists who are aware of the problem of the ego and who have created a whole body of work surrounding this. We can start with William Blake and Goethe and go from there. In my own way I have addressed the problem in my own books.
4. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that I missed, but I would say that since I wrote the book I have certainly seen the term “chaos” turning up in political contexts more and more. Here in the UK the whole Brexit debacle is a case in point. No one seems to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they expect to get from it. In one of his books Nietzsche says something like “I do not know what to do. Modern man is everything that does not know what to do” – I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist. He could have been writing about today. In fact, he was. One of things I argue in the book is that Nietzsche saw what is happening today, more than a century ago. He knew it was on its way “I write not for today, nor for tomorrow, but for the day after tomorrow” he says in one of his books. Its the effect of what I call “trickle down metaphysics.” Nietzsche was concerned about the coming nihilism in the 1880s. Sadly he went mad before he could do much about it. But since then people like Heidegger, then the deconstructionists have taken up the idea until today the idea that existence is meaningless – and ours in particular – is taught in universities and proclaimed by postmodernists galore. Well, I don’t think we can blame people like Trump for saying “Nothing is true? Everything is permitted? Okay, let’s go for it!” Trump most likely never heard of Nietzsche and certainly never read him, but he got the idea and ran with it. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that “there is no truth” and feel liberated from what you consider “oppressive” cultural and societal constraints by it, and then say “Well, no, you can’t use this to your advantage.” Why not? What do you have to oppose this? Without truth in the old sense the only thing that determines things is power. Which, sadly, is where we are today.
5. I can’t say that I ever seriously thought that 9/11 was the outcome of a conspiracy. I am not given to conspiracy theories, although, oddly enough, I met David Ray Griffin years ago when I was student and was thinking of studying the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead with him. He is the major 9/11 conspiracy theorist. When I discovered this, years after we met and also after 9/11, I was surprised. I didn’t read any of his books about it though.
And here is the interview for Minima et Moralia :
1) How would you summarize the main topic of the book?
2) How would you describe briefly the international propaganda strategy of far-right populism?
3) How can we face the misappropriation of certain authors (i.e. Jung, William Blake) by the occult side of far-right?
4) Which has been the most disturbing discovery that emerged during your research?
5) How can the left wing cultural side fight back the frightening risin’ tide of neofascism?
6) How can we break the “evil spell” of alt-right propaganda?
7) What are your next projects?
1. The book is about the “assault on reality” that I see taking place in early 21st century consciousness. This is happening in many quarters. The book begins with a look at one aspect of this, the resurgence of a kind of “occultism” or “magic” in contemporary US politics, but it is not limited to this; in a deeper, more inclusive way it has been taking place in Russia for decades. I begin by looking at claims made by the alt-right that they somehow “dreamed” or “willed” Trump into office. Such “magical” ideas could be easily ignored, were it not for the fact -a  real fact, not an alternative one – that similar developments have been taking place in other areas, in academia, popular culture, and philosophy, going back to Nietzsche’s warning more than a century ago about the advent of nihilism, the collapse of belief in hitherto unquestioned “realities.” Nietzsche saw that the pursuit of truth, by both religion and science, inevitably led to the recognition that “truth” in some clear, objective, self-evident character simply did not exist. What Nietzsche saw back in the 1880s has become de rigueur  for us, through postmodernism and deconstructionism, but also through the fascination with “reality TV” – which gave us the current American president – and the longstanding valid “occult” objection to western rationalism’s rejection of intuition and other “mystical” perspectives. I call this “trickle down metaphysics.” With Trump, a product of reality TV, we have our current “post -truth” and “alternative fact” world. Trump is also a devotee of “positive thinking,” a variant of the kind of “magical thinking” that the alt-right say they used to get him elected. As I point out in the book, ideas about “creating our own reality” have moved from self-help seminars and books to political strategies. The kind of “virtual reality” that has been in place in Russia since Putin’s arrival is an expression of this.
2. I would say it combines some valid criticisms of the “establishment” – which is generally on the left or at least the “progressive” side of the equation – with resentment at how this “elite” has ignored these concerns, with pandering to fears and anxieties over “identity.” When a civilization enters its “time of troubles” – as the historian Arnold Toynbee referred to fundamental crises in a society – the confusion and uncertainty this creates can be relieved by establishing or adopting a simple, easily grasped idea of one’s self or one’s group. This is the “tribal consciousness” that has seen a disconcerting rise in recent times. Unfortunately, many if not most people find a “self” through belonging to some group, and identifying with it’s beliefs, customs, rituals etc. A small minority anchor their self in some inner reality, an inner truth, which sustains them amidst the flux. These are the people we simple do not hear about or from, because in our dangerously polarized times, their quiet, reasonable voice is drowned out by the shouting and insults coming from either side. It’s not easy to find that center in oneself, but it is the only thing that can keep us from being overwhelmed by the surges of irrational anger and resentment coming from either side.
3.There hasn’t been a book worth reading that hasn’t been misunderstood and misappropriated by some group wanting to validate itself by adopting it as its Bible. The Bible in fact is a case in point: probably no other book has been used to legitimatize actions and beliefs that are the absolute opposite of what it says. Nietzsche, whose name is dropped pretty regularly by the alt-right, was picked up by the Nazis – his sister, a fan of Hitler, helped in this – but was quickly dropped when they realized that what he was really saying had nothing to do with their thuggish heroics; he called for all anti-Semites to be shot, something that must have set Goebbels’ alarm bells ringing. Jung was another, although, to be fair, Jung at first did think something might have come out of National Socialism, because he was critical of the hypertrophied rationality of modern man. He later admitted he was wrong, unlike Heidegger. We can’t stop these thinkers falling into the wrong hands, but we can do our best to understand what they are really saying, and so disarm those who want to use them for dubious purposes. But this isn’t something that only afflicts thinkers that far-right folk have picked up. A great deal of leftist thinking has been used to justify Stalin’s murderous regime, and Marx looked forward to seeing the bourgeoisie hanging from the lamp posts. Discrimination is key, as it is in so many things. But we need time, effort, and patience for this, and today’s hyper-reactive world, in which everyone has to apologize for what they say immediately after saying it, makes these commodities difficult to obtain.
4. Most disturbing is the extent that “creating his own reality” has worked out for Putin. If Trump is a one man reality TV show, Putin has had an entire network creating a “virtual reality” Russia for years, and his identification with Holy Russia or Moscow as the Third Rome, the upholder of “traditional values” against the decadent west, has worked very well for him. The Eurasia meme – Russia not as a backward cousin of Europe, but as a new civilization, rising up as the west goes under – has proved very valuable and in the case of Crimea and Ukraine, has changed the map. If this is “magical” thinking, it seems to work.
5. I think the left has a lot of work to do. Its imaginative charge, meaning its ability to motivate people, has, I think, faded quite a bit. It isn’t as “sexy” as the right, which, for good or bad, manages to dip into the mythological waters and profit by them. The left has always been anti-myth, anti-religion, keeping to sweet reason and rationality (“Religion is the opium of the people,” etc.). It also seems to have fractured into a variety of different interests groups which come together when there is a common enemy – Trump, far-right populism – but doesn’t seem to have a unifying belief or “cause” in the same way that the right seems to. I’m not a leftist myself, or a rightist. I am one of those unfortunate people who are compelled to think for themselves and refuse to be absorbed into one group or another. But I think that if there is any hope for a decent future, it will be because of precisely these kind of people. To be honest, I do wonder what a post-Trump, triumphant “progressive” future will be like. I am concerned about a doubling down of “political correctness” and a sentiment of “never again!”.
6. Again, awareness, discrimination, effort, thought, a refusal to react to provocation – and also spending less time on social media, which has become a swamp, brimming with all sorts of organisms which can easily infect us through symbols and slogans that reach below our conscious minds and directly affect our unconscious, releasing the anger there. It doesn’t matter if this is directed against the alt-right or whoever. It is the sheer affect that counts, the loss of our self, the plunge into dark, turbid waters. That only adds to the confusion.
7. I’m currently working on a book about the “return of Holy Russia,” a kind of follow-up to Dark Star Rising, although it can be read by itself.

Dark Stars Over Europe

The Italian edition of Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump goes on sale today. I’m very excited about this, but as I say in the new Introduction I’ve written for this edition, my excitement is tempered with concern. Since writing Dark Star Rising, I’ve watched developments in Europe with more than a little trepidation. A populism anchored in right wing politics seems spreading across the continent. And not only in Europe, as events in places like Brazil seem to suggest. Here, in the UK, where I live, the exit of Britain from the European Union has only generated more chaos and stimulated more of the anger and abuse that seem to have taken the place of political discussion. To put it mildly, these are uncertain and unsettling times and there doesn’t seem to be any end to them in sight. Those of us with clear heads have to keep them. Let’s be thankful that so far that’s only metaphorically. Here’s the Introduction in Inglese.


Dark Stars Over Europe

By Gary Lachman

When I heard from my publisher that an Italian edition of my book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump would be coming out soon, I was of course delighted. Although I am an American ex-pat living in London now for some twenty-plus years, I have always felt a strong connection to Europe. (And for those who will point out that England is part of Europe, I suggest they consider Brexit and the feeling that many in the UK have these days towards those bureaucrats “on the continent.”) This is romanticism, to be sure, but it is a part of me nonetheless. This means that whenever I hear that a book of mine is coming out in Spanish, Norwegian, or, as this one is, Italian, I feel a certain thrill, and am excited at the idea that this usually means that I will be travelling to those countries to give talks and lectures to promote the new translation.

Yet I have to say that on this occasion my delight is tempered with a certain hesitation. I am troubled by the feeling that for a publisher to want to bring out an edition of this book in a European tongue, means that its topic is of interest to the people that speak it. Normally this would give me nothing but pleasure. But this time it’s different.

Why? The main idea behind Dark Star Rising is that in recent years there has been a resurgence of a kind of “occult politics” in the United States, but also in Russia, and that it is  part of the wave of populism and nationalism that has spread in those countries and is now flooding Europe. In an earlier book, Politics and the Occult, I looked at how occult and esoteric ideas have informed politics in the modern world on both sides of the ideological divide, left and right.[1] In fact, I wrote that book in order to show that not all “occult politics” must be right-wing, as writers like Umberto Eco have argued. There is a kind of “progressive” occult politics too, going back to the Rosicrucians of the early seventeenth century, and in my book I give many examples of it. But this recent return of occult ideas and beliefs to politics seems fairly anchored on the right. One example of this may be familiar to some Italian readers.

In February 2017, the New York Times ran a story about a talk Steve Bannon, then Donald Trump’s chief strategist, gave to a group of conservative churchmen in the Vatican. Bannon spoke on his usual topics – immigration, the fight against Islamic fascism, the Global Tea Party movement – but what the Times pointed out was something else. In the course of commenting on Russian president Vladimir Putin and his upholding of “traditional values,” Bannon mentioned someone in Putin’s milieu who was a reader of Julius Evola. As I point out in the book, Julius Evola was a brilliant but controversial twentieth century Italian esoteric thinker whose political views were very much on the right. He tried to influence first Mussolini, and then Hitler, and he later became a kind of éminence grise for movements on the Italian post-war right that were rising up, as Evola says, “amidst the ruins.”

That an adviser to the newly elected President of the United States was a reader of Evola was certainly something to consider. That the New York Times would make it headline news made me feel that indeed something strange was going on. This was the sort of thing that maintained a kind of fugitive existence on the fringe of the mainstream world. Now it was smack in the middle of everyday life. What was even stranger was that the person Bannon was alluding to, the reader of Evola within Putin’s circle, was Alexander Dugin, an individual with one of the most eccentric careers in postmodern politics. Dugin started out in the 1980s as anti-Soviet dissident punk and through a series of remarkable metamorphoses, became a respected authority on geopolitics, some of whose ideas – as I argue in the book – seem to have informed President Putin’s activities in Ukraine and the Crimea.

If this was not enough, Evola is also one of the ideological pillars of the Alt-Right, the far right counter-culture movement that grew up around Trump’s presidential campaign. And just as in the 1920s Evola tried to influence Mussolini through the use of a kind of “mind magic” or “mental science,” Richard Spencer, founder of the Alt-Right, claimed to have put Trump into office, through the use of a similar kind of magic, this time involving the internet. It is quite a story and I won’t spoil it for the reader here. I will only add that Trump himself is a devotee of a school of philosophy known as New Thought, whose central belief is that “thoughts are causative,” that through the power of the mind alone, we can alter, even “create” reality. Trump’s particular brand of mind magic is called “positive thinking,” but as I try to show in the book, it has much in common with the kind of postmodern magic that Spencer and the Alt-Right say they have got up to, as well as with the sort of occult ideas informing President Putin’s geopolitical adviser.

All this of course could be nothing more than the most ridiculous nonsense. Supporters of Trump will say he didn’t need magic to win the election; critics will say that any “magic” is just a smokescreen for Trump’s cynical Machiavellianism. But in a time when the very idea of “reality” or “truth” seems at best very shaky, who is to say what forces or factors can influence events? For the better part of a decade, people in Russia inhabited a reality that was for the most part invented for them by the government and distributed through the media. (How different it is today is debatable, but the emphasis, I think, has changed.) The kind of “reality TV” world that Putin had in place may have been the inspiration for America’s own reality TV president. Certainly the relativity of truth and the rejection of objective fact that characterizes the postmodern, deconstructive view emanating from the universities for decades, has played a part in obscuring the difference between reality and fantasy. As I say in the book, it has in fact precipitated a trickle-down effect, from the metaphysical heights to the lowlands of everyday. The “post-truth” “alternative fact” pop nihilism we luxuriate in today is the result. Reality is up for grabs. If each of us doesn’t take hold of it firmly, someone else will provide one for us. There are many people out there with less than salubrious designs for doing just that.

Since leaving Trump’s team, Bannon, we know, has toured Europe, drumming up support for and fanning the coals of the kind of populism that put Trump into power. Like all populism, it succeeds – when it does – not through reasoned argument – although Bannon and his fellow travellers will argue otherwise – but through the power of images, symbols, and slogans. These simple and direct stimuli reach below our conscious minds and influence us at deep, visceral levels, the same levels at which magic works – when it does. If the claim of success that Spencer and his gang have made is warranted, it did in November 2016. And if I am correct about the influence Alexander Dugin had on Putin’s activities in Ukraine and Crimea, it did in 2013-14 too. Are there similar efforts being made in Europe today? Does the success of nationalism and populism in several European states suggest that there are? I don’t know. I do know that in Dark Star Rising I have tried to dispel the darkness around these matters as best as I can, and to make clear what is at stake these days in what I call a “war on reality.” That my publisher Tlon is putting out the book encourages my outlook. Their name suggests that they are aware of the fragility of reality – I am a great reader of Borges – and that they are conscious of exactly what is at stake. I am certain that a reader picking up this book will feel that way too.

Gary Lachman

London, November 2018


[1] Gary Lachman Politics and the Occult (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2008)


Mozart and the Stars

Here is the text of the talk I gave for the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, in Calw, Germany earlier this month. Calw is the home town of Hermann Hesse, and Hesse readers will know that the title of this post comes from his novel SteppenwolfBecause of the Hesse connection, I geared my talk accordingly. A few slightly awkward moments occurred during the talk – which was ably translated by my excellent translator Isabel – because of the significance a glass of wine has in the story. My Rosicrucian hosts were tee-total, but humor, another factor in the novel, saw us through. The afternoon we spent the next day at the Hesse museum  in Calw made up for any misunderstandings.

I had brought a new translation of Steppenwolf  – picked up at a charity shop – in honor of my adolescent obsession with Hesse. I dutifully read it while in Calw, but I have to say I was put off by its “updating” of the language and so-called “corrections.” Changing the famous tag line “For Madmen Only,” to “For Mad People Only,” just didn’t work and smacked too much of politically correct editing. Mensch in Germany means “man” or “one”, not “male,” just as “man” in English does not mean “male,” but “one” or “human”, unless of course you are referring a particular man. (A lot of ink has been spilled and feathers ruffled over this misunderstanding.) I’m glad that the original English translation by Basil Creighton, with all its poetry and romanticism, is still available. I have a hard cover first edition of the English translation from 1929 that has served me well for the past thirty-five years or so (I got it at a second hand shop in Los Angeles in the early ’80s.)

On the way to Stuttgart Airport for my flight to London, I was treated to a special, exclusive tour of the Johanes Kepler Museum in Weil det Stadt. Kepler featured in my talk and although the museum is closed on Mondays, the curator very kindly opened up for us and gave us the royal treatment. I first read about Kepler’s fascinating if difficult  life in Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, a brilliant and very readable history of the early years of modern astronomy. We had a further enlightening experience as we enjoyed the guided tour of Tubingen, the university town that in the late eighteenth century numbered Hegel, Holderlin, Schelling and many other important Germany philosophers and writers among its inhabitants, given by friends of my host. Tubingen was also an important center for the original Rosicrucians of the the early seventeenth century. It was out of the “Tubingen Circle” that Johann Valentin Andreae, most likely responsible for much of the Rosicrucian Manifestos, emerged. I write about this in Politics and the Occult – which, incidentally, will soon be available in audio format. (I sent off the Introduction earlier this week.)

Here’s the talk. Some of the ideas I touch on in it will be discussed in the Nura Learning course on the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination starting on November 17.


Regaining the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination: A Talk for the Lectorium Rosicrucianum Calw, Germany 20/10/18

This afternoon I’m going to talk about what I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” But before I start I should say that the phrase itself comes from the English poet and essayist Kathleen Raine. For many years Kathleen Raine guided the Temenos Academy in London, an alternative learning establishment whose aim was to keep alive what she called “the learning of the imagination.” It is still active today, running lectures and courses devoted to this learning.

“Temenos” is a Greek word meaning the “sacred space” or “gathering” before the temple, and it is an apt name for Raine’s academy. Raine, who is perhaps best known as a scholar of  William Blake and other English Romantic poets, discovered that there was a whole tradition in the west of what we can call “imaginative knowledge,” that was lost to us. This was a knowledge that was as “real” and “true” as the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with – scientific knowledge or practical knowledge – but that concerned itself with aspects of reality that our more commonplace knowledge ignored or was unaware of or, in many cases, actively rejected.

What is this other kind of knowledge and why was it rejected? In a broad, general sense we can say that where the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with deals with the outer, external world –  how to manoeuver through it and control it, the kind of knowledge that is absolutely necessary for life –  this other, imaginative knowledge is concerned with our inner world, with what we used to call the soul but which we now speak of as consciousness. It is concerned with our inner experience, with states of being, with values, meanings, insights, intuitions and the other mysterious phenomena that make up our interior landscape and help make us human.

This kind of knowledge was rejected because it is precisely these kinds of intangible things that the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with cannot deal with adequately. It can tell us what is wrong with our car engine or how to get to the moon, but if we want to know the meaning of life or why a sunset is beautiful, it is irrelevant, absolutely useless. No amount of scientific analysis of a sunset will reveal to us the mystery of its beauty, just as no amount of pragmatic advice about how to “get on” in life will tell us its meaning. For this kind of knowledge, “meaning” and “beauty” are only subjective, they exist only “inside our heads”. My car engine and the moon are outside; they are objective, “real.” What I know about them is real knowledge and true for everyone. What I find meaningful and beautiful is true only for me. According to our common ideas, that is not knowledge. At best, it’s opinion, and only as good as any other.

Although living and influential in the past, this imaginative tradition, Raine saw, had been lost or, more accurately, pushed aside and relegated to the gutter, with the rise of the modern age and the development of what we know of as science and the measurable, quantifiable knowledge associated with it. At this time, around the early seventeenth century, for something to qualify as knowledge it had to be amenable to being measured and quantified. The sort of interior experience the tradition of imaginative knowledge was concerned with could not meet this requirement. It was concerned with quality, not quantity; with meaning, not measure. The sorts of things it engaged with could not be encompassed with a slide rule or measuring tape . They could not be touched or felt or weighed or in any way perceived by the senses. Because of this they soon found themselves being regarded as non-existent, or at best understood as negligible by-products of the actual measurable – that is physical – processes that the new quantifiable knowledge believed accounted for them.

This belief in the unreality or insignificance of our inner experience – from the quantitative perspective – remains today.  It is very easy to find evidence for it. The whole push to “explain consciousness” in physical terms – as a product of neurons and electro-chemical exchanges in the brain – that has been going on for some time now, is an example. But because the new, quantitative way of knowing was so impressive and successful and seemed to put an enormous power into man’s hands, it went ahead with confidence, and either ignored the warnings about the consequences of the loss of our inner world or rejected them as nonsense.

The tradition of imaginative knowledge lost a great deal of its prestige at this time. Up until then it was not considered, as it is today, mere nonsense and superstition, but a legitimate concern of scholars and philosophers, and its fall from grace was considerable. But, as Raine saw, it did not disappear. It merely went underground, and became a kind of subterranean stream, surfacing from time to time, and informing sages and poets like Swedenborg and Blake, but also Goethe, Novalis and the German Romantics, and many other artists and poets and musicians and philosophers. By the late nineteenth century it flowered forth as the modern “occult revival,” responsible for Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. By the early twentieth century we have Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, the work of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and even psychologists such as Carl Jung drawing on elements and ideas bubbling in the underground stream of our lost tradition.

In my books The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus and The Secret Teachers of the Western World, I write about the history of this “lost tradition,” which has been lost only for the past four centuries. “Misplaced” or “hidden” may be better ways to characterize it, as something being “lost” implies that it has gone missing accidentally,  and the disappearance of this tradition of imaginative knowledge had nothing accidental about it. It was deliberately relegated to the rubbish bin of ideas, and as I show in Secret Teachers, was subject to a kind of “character assassination.”

In these books and others, I show this tradition’s roots in the ancient philosophies and beliefs of antiquity and how, with the rise of quantifiable knowledge as the only accepted form of knowledge, it fell from a position of considerable prestige into ignominious disrepute. When we recognize that figures such as Copernicus and Isaac Newton, architects of the modern age, and other A-list western intellectual stars, such as Dante and Plato, subscribed to much of the lost tradition, we can see that it is something of value and significance and that to lose such a learning is indeed a loss.

Raine herself saw the Neoplatonic tradition, with its vision of the One, the varied forms of the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, and the struggle of the individual soul to free itself from material bondage – its exile in the world –  and return to its source, as the guiding idea behind the symbols and metaphors that inform the Romantic lyrical tradition. What this poetry was about fundamentally was the soul, and its journey here, in an often dark world. Ultimately this vision went back to Plato. But she knew that Neoplatonism was not the sole source of the knowledge of the imagination she discovered in Coleridge, Yeats and other poets. It was one of many sources rooted in the past, such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and also the wisdom of the East, that fed the subterranean stream of the lost tradition. The tradition of the imagination has appeared in many forms, each related to the others, but each also unique. But each also fed and drank at the same source.

All of these traditions offered a different way of knowing the world and a different way of understanding our place in it, than that of the quantifiable, measurable view. In a general sense we can say that they spoke of a world that was living, conscious, interconnected, and receptive to human entreaty. Human beings themselves were a part of this world and shared in its spiritual, vital character. We could communicate with it. We participated  in it. We could speak with the spirits of nature and commune with the gods. It was a world that we can only dimly envision now, through our imagination – or remember it from our childhood – but it was a world in which imagination was the fundamental medium linking all together.

But with the rise of the new quantitative way of knowing, all this changed. The gods and spirits were evicted from the world. In order to understand the laws of planetary motion, we had to reject the idea, expressed eloquently by Dante, that it was the angels, or love, that moved the stars. Yet, Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion which we use today to send our probes out into the further reaches of space, was himself a passionate devotee of our lost tradition.

If someone responsible for the knowledge that allows us to send interstellar probes out beyond our solar system and into the infinity of space was a student of our lost tradition, it behooves us, I believe, to try to understand why this should be so. It is also a reminder that in trying to revive or restore or renew this lost tradition, the aim is not for it to replace the kind of knowing we associate with science and the practical business of life, but to complement it. Both are absolutely necessary and it is only by embracing both that we are fully and truly human.

The true source of this tradition of imaginative knowledge, however, is the imagination itself. All gods exist and have their origin in the human soul, William Blake tells us. He goes even further. The entire world we perceive with our senses is a product of imagination – not in the sense of it being “fake” or “unreal” but in the sense that our inner world, our mind, for sake of a better word, has precedent over the outer one and is indeed responsible for it. As the essayist and philosopher of language Owen Barfield – a friend of C. S. Lewis and a brilliant expositor of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner – said, “Interior is anterior,” meaning that our inner worlds come first, before the outer world. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what modern science tells us today. For it, the outer, exterior, physical, material measureable world comes first and is, in some way they can’t explain just yet – but they are working on it – responsible for our inner ones.

I don’t accept this and I don’t believe the people in this room accept it. But that is the situation today. And it is because that is the situation today that we have what this conference is concerned with: a crisis of the ego. What I hope to do in this talk is to show that by regaining this lost knowledge of the imagination, by becoming aware of and participating in this tradition of the imagination, we may be able to overcome this crisis. With a grasp of what this knowledge of the imagination truly means, we can pass through this difficult time, this “time of troubles,” as  the historian Arnold Toynbee spoke of the crises that challenge civilization, and begin to work on the real challenge, that of taking the next step in the evolution of consciousness.

For that is what I consider our current crises to be. The environmental, social, political, economic and other planetary challenges facing us are the hurdles we have to leap, the barriers we have to surmount, in order to make the shift into the next stage in human consciousness. Or, rather, it is by making that shift that we will be able to face these challenges successfully. The two are intertwined. Toynbee saw “challenge and response” as the motor of history. If a challenge facing a civilization is too great, it fails and goes down. If it is too easy, the civilization becomes complacent and decays. But if the challenge is “just right”, then the civilization finds the will and creativity to meet it, and continues to grow. I call this the “Goldilocks theory of history,” and it is something, I think,  that we can apply to human consciousness itself. If you know the English fairy tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, you will know that out of three choices, she always finds what is “just right.”

There are no guarantees and it is up to us to pull it off. But if we don’t, I see little hope of a bright future. I don’t mean to be gloomy here, just realistic. The environmental challenges facing us are enough to suggest this, and the political ones are no help either.

But how can a tradition of imagination, however important, help deal with the kind of real, solid, hard, physical crises involving climate, wealth, social justice and so on that face us today? To answer that I will need to take a look at what I mean when I speak of imagination.

When we think of imagination we usually see it as some kind of “substitute” for reality. We think of fantasy, day-dreams, wish-fulfilment musings offering unsubstantial realizations of a life much more interesting, fascinating, exciting – in general in all ways much better than our own. We think of imagination as “make believe,” as pretence, and sigh wistfully about  “having our dreams come true,” and are usually woken up with a start and the admonition that we have let our imagination “run away with us.” We drift into a fantasy of some more satisfying way of life, then sigh and admit that it was “just our imagination.”

Or we think of imagination as a tool for being innovative, for coming up with novelties that will keep us at “the cutting edge” of our profession. It helps to bring us the latest in technology, and keeps it “state of the art” and “fresh from the drawing board.” Imagination in this sense can be applied to anything, from computers to lipstick, from automobiles to swim suits. It is responsible for fashion – or perhaps we should say that a lack of imagination is responsible for that.

Of course we also give imagination an important, essential place in the arts. This is where it is most respected. Great literature, great painting, great music are all dependent upon the powers of the imagination, as are the lower ranks in these pursuits. This is perhaps the one realm in which the quantitative way of knowing will allow its qualitative way some freedom, although of course we know that many serious people see the products of imagination in this way as little more than ways of “escaping reality.” We say that people who spend too much time reading fiction or watching films are guilty of escapism, of running away from life – although much of the fiction and the films made today seem themselves something to run away from.

But ultimately, when it gets down to business, however powerful and moving a novel, painting, symphony, or even a film may be, in the end it, like the other substitutes for reality, is “unreal.” They are fiction, even if the novel, such as War and Peace, is about “real” events, or the painting depicts an historic scene. And if it is, like music, a non-representational art, then it is in the end really nothing more than nice sounds, vibrations of air that, for some odd reason, give us a sense of joy or comfort or what have you.

The point here is that no matter how powerful or meaningful we find a work of art, in the end, for the quantitative way of knowing, that power or meaning is less real than the paper, ink, canvas, paint or vibrations of air that convey it. Paper, canvas, ink and vibrations can be measured; meaning can’t.

This prejudice toward the unreality of the imagination is a difficult thing to excise. It is emphasized in the very definition of the word, at least in English. The Oxford Dictionary calls it a “mental faculty of forming images of objects not existent.” The Cambridge Dictionary calls it “the ability to form pictures in the mind that you think exist or are true but are in fact not real or true.” Merriam-Webster calls it “the ability to imagine things that are not real.”

We get the point. There are two things I want to say about this. The first is that although “imagining” in the sense of making a mental picture of something is, of course, a great part of “imagination,” it is not the only thing that is important about it or the only “power” possessed by imagination. The way I see imagination, it is not a faculty or a power in a specific sense, in the way that, say, our eyes have the “power” of sight or our ears the “power” of hearing. It is the means by which we have any experience at all. You can have 20/20 vision and hearing like sonar, but if you lack imagination you will be blind as a bat and deaf as a log. Imagination is something so fundamental that we cannot point to one limited expression of it and say, “That’s it. That’s imagination.” It is a kind of “intuitive glue” that holds all of our experience together; without it, everything would break apart into disconnected fragments. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be without imagination, because we would need imagination in order to do so.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke of the fundamental elements of our experience as things “incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves.” These are things so basic that we can’t get under or away from them. We can’t analyse anything without already taking them for granted. Imagination, I think, is one of those things. It is so much a part of memory, self-consciousness, thought, perception, and the rest of our inner experience that it is almost impossible to pry it apart from them or any of them from each other. We can talk about these elements of our inner world as separate phenomena but we soon find that they blend into each other and that to demand an unyielding, fixed definition of “imagination” or any of these other imponderables would actually make them more obscure. We recognize what they mean tacitly, implicitly, and to throw the spotlight of analysis on them too harshly causes them to fade from our grasp. They have their own character, their own shading, contour and shape, but they run in parallel with each other.

The other thing I would say regarding a definition of imagination is that the one I do find most profitable to follow comes from Colin Wilson, a British writer and philosopher whose work has been an enormous influence on my own. He saw imagination as “the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.” Not, as our official definitions have it, as a means of creating “mental images” of non-existent things. But a means of grasping reality itself. I would only add to Wilson’s definition the fact that we often need imagination to truly grasp the reality that is right in front of us, staring us in the face.

Wilson knew this, and it is this kind of passivity before the outer world that our consciousness often exhibits – what he calls “robotic consciousness” – that he spent a lifetime analysing in order to overcome. But what he meant by “realities that are not immediately present,” is that we are often hypnotized into accepting whatever “reality” may be in front of us at the moment as the whole of reality, or at least of the reality available to us at the time. We are, he says, “stuck” in the present, hemmed in by our immediate experience in the same way that we would be hemmed in by four walls if we were locked in a room. Plato, in fact, knew this ages ago, when he compared human beings to prisoners chained and forced to live in a cave, and who take the  shadows they are compelled to see for “reality.”

Plato believed the pursuit of philosophy was a way of exiting the cave. He is right. It is, and the Neoplatonists whose vision informed Kathleen Raine’s Romantic poets knew it. But sometimes we can find ourselves outside the cave and in the bright daylight spontaneously. It is in such a moment that imagination in the sense of “making real” “realities that are not immediately present,” comes into play. And even here, the notion that imagination, instead of “make believe” – which is how we usually understand it – is really about “making real,” is expressed quite clearly. Anytime you “realize” something – that is, make it real to you – you use your imagination to do so. That is what “realizing” something means: making it real.

Let me give you an example of such a moment that Wilson refers to in his books and which seems rather appropriate for the setting of this conference. It comes from the novelist Hermann Hesse, from his novel Steppenwolf, and here we are in Hesse’s hometown. I’m sure you know the story. Harry Haller – who we must assume is in at least some ways Hesse himself – is a middle-aged intellectual who really has nothing to complain about. He has enough money to live on, the freedom to do what he wants, and no responsibilities of any kind. Yet, he spends his days avoiding suicide. Why? Why should his freedom, which is something he has always wanted and has struggled and sacrificed to attain, have become a burden? It makes no sense. Yet it has and in the beginning of the book we find him wandering around an unidentified city – most likely a blend of Basel and Zurich – avoiding the razor blade.

At one point he sits at a café and orders a glass of wine. Then, as he sips his good Elsasser, something happens. His despair lifts and suddenly he is transformed. “A refreshing laughter” rises in him, and from out of nowhere, he is flooded with memories: of paintings he has seen, places he has been, of experiences he has had but of which only he knows. “A thousand pictures” were stored in his brain, and now they have come back to him, not as dim, faint recollections, but as living, vital realities. These things have been and still are real, and the recognition of their reality, the realization of it, has now completely changed the wretched Steppenwolf’s mood. He is not trapped in the prison of the present moment, and the dullness he feels toward life is a colossal mistake, his ideas of suicide an absurdity. As he becomes aware of more reality, he becomes more real himself. “The golden trail was blazed and I was reminded of the eternal, and of Mozart and the stars.” Would that we all were!

Harry Haller was reminded of the reality of the stars, of Mozart and of the eternal. But did he actually forget that Mozart existed, or that the stars did? (We can put the eternal aside for a moment.) Did he forget about their existence in the same way that he might have forgotten his keys or a friend’s telephone number? What exactly is he “remembering” here?

What Hesse means by being “reminded” here is not the same as when we are reminded of some fact we have forgotten, say, the year of Mozart’s birth or when he composed the Jupiter Symphony. What has set the golden trail ablaze is not some fact like this coming to the Steppenwolf’s attention. He does not say “Oh yes. How could I forget? Mozart existed and wrote all that music. And the stars and the eternal exist too. How silly of me.” He was in full possession of these facts before he drank his glass of wine. But he was not in full possession of the reality of those facts until he did. Something prevented him from remembering it or somehow came between the acknowledgement of the fact and the appreciation of its meaning. And now the wine has somehow removed this impediment and the reality of things – or at least that part of it he has “forgotten” – comes rushing in. No surprise that wine and poetry have long been fellow travellers.

And it is because the Steppenwolf is not in full possession of reality that he finds the “lukewarm and insipid air of his so-called good and tolerable days” absolutely unbearable and he spends his evenings wondering whether or not he should slit his throat.

What has saved him from doing so that particular evening is precisely the reality of other times and places, coming back to him and rescuing him from the misconception that reality is whatever happens to be in front our noses at the moment. It is not. These things that come rushing to him really happened and they are really a part of his life. They happened in the past, yes, but what of it? What is time that it should decide whether something is real or not? It is all well and good to “be here now,” as much sage wisdom advises. But it all depends on how big is “here” and how long is “now”. “Here” can mean the entire universe and “now” all eternity – if, as the teachers of the imagination tell us, we know how to enter them. At that moment when the wine released the restraints on his imagination, the past was as fully real to the Steppenwolf as the present was. Even more real, as the present he had taken for reality was a confidence trick that, luckily, he has seen through.

So that is an example of how imagination, rather than dealing in unrealities, is an absolutely necessary ingredient in our capacity to fully grasp actual, well-established realities. And again, this is not some metaphor or “manner of speaking.” Harry Haller may be a fictional character, but anyone who knows about Hesse’s life knows that an H.H. turns up in more than one novel and is usually not very far removed from Hesse himself. I think we can take it as given that the kind of experience Harry Haller had was also had in some way by Hesse himself. He certainly entertained suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion. It was precisely in order to understand the meaning of such experiences, that Hesse wrote Steppenwolf and his other novels.

In general Hesse’s heroes find something “missing” in life and head out on the road in order to find it. And on the way they have strange moments when what is missing is suddenly found. And like Harry Haller they do feel “How could I forget?,” but not about this or that fact, but about the reality of their experience. Indeed, how could they forget that? What is missing? Reality, or our grasp of it. How can we regain it? Imagination.

This is not a talk about Hesse, so I should move on. But you can find other examples of the “Mozart and the stars” experience in Steppenwolf and in Hesse’s other novels. Now let me offer a few examples of other types of experience associated with the “learning of the imagination.” Let me give you one from a younger contemporary and countryman of Hesse, although one who had very different views on life and society.

In his unclassifiable work The Adventurous Heart, the writer Ernst Jünger has a section entitled “The Master Key.” In it he offers an example of a kind of imaginative knowing that is direct, immediate, much in the way that the reality of the past came to Hesse’s Steppenwolf directly. “Our understanding is such,” Jünger writes, “that it is able to engage from the circumference as well as at the midpoint.” “For the first case we possess ant-like industriousness, for the second the gift of intuition.” Jünger comments that “for the mind that comprehends the midpoint, knowledge of the circumference becomes secondary – just as individual room keys lose importance for someone with the master key to the house.”

Knowing from the mid-point, or, we could say, at the bull’s eye, is a way of knowing that is direct, not discursive. It does not follow steps or stages but goes straight to the center, to the heart we might say. It possesses a miraculous accuracy but it has one drawback. It is unable to explain how it knows what it knows, how it came to its knowledge. Intuitions come to us, suddenly, out of the blue, and we just know they are right, even though we can’t explain why or how. That is the benefit of the ant-like industriousness of those who proceed from the circumference – that is, using our usual way of knowing, with all the individual keys to all the separate rooms. It is dull and repetitious, but once we know something in this way, we can tell someone else how we know it, and show them so that they can know it too. I can’t share my intuitive bull’s eyes in the same way, although if I am an artist or creative in some way, I may be able to create something that can spark an intuition in you. But I can’t write out a formula for one in the same way that I can, say, for a chemical experiment.

This kind of direct knowledge appears in different ways. Goethe experienced something of it when he perceived his Urpflanze in the Botanical Gardens in Palermo during his famous Italian Journey. Gazing at the plants there in the hot Mediterranean sun, Goethe believed he could see what he called the “Primal Plant,” the archetypal plant from which all others emerge and with which all others are still in sympathy, that is, connected. It was “real” but it was not physical, and to see it require a long training and discipline in the imagination which, for Goethe, was as precise an instrument as any used by his fellow scientists. Goethe wrote about his experience of “seeing ideas” – as his friend Schiller called it – but he knew that it was “impossible to understand just from reading.” One had to see the Primal Plant for oneself, and that meant training the imagination to do so.

The kind of inner seeing that Goethe practiced in order to see his Urpflanze has much in common with what the alchemist and Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz called “the intelligence of the heart.” This was a way of understanding the world that de Lubicz believed was at the center of ancient Egyptian religion and civilization. It too was a way of seeing into things, of looking into their interior and grasping the interconnectedness of all experience. De Lubicz speaks of a way of knowing the world in which we can “tumble from the rock that falls from the mountain,” “rejoice with the rosebud about to open,” and “expand in space with the ripening fruit.” As with Jünger’s “master key,” “the intelligence of the heart” is a way of going directly to the center of experience, of participating with it, in a way that our usual way of knowing, from the outside, finds incomprehensible. It is a way of knowing that, using a term from the esoteric tradition,  we can call a gnosis.

There are other forms of imaginative knowing, such as the inner journeying of seers such as the 11th century Persian mystical philosopher Suhrawardi, the Swedish scientist and religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, the psychologist Carl Jung, and the 20th century Iranologist Henry Corbin. I explore them in my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination and unfortunately I can only mention them here. In this talk I have focused on one aspect of our imaginative knowing, that of its power to grasp reality. But as I say, reality extends into more directions than we might immediately recognize. What Suhrawardi, Swedenborg, Jung, Corbin, and many others discovered was that our imagination is our entry point into the little explored universe each of us carries around inside our heads. A world extends outside of us infinitely. There is also an inner world that extends into an equal infinity within our minds, with its own landscapes, geography, laws, and, most strange, inhabitants. But that I will have to leave for another talk.

What I want to do now, as I see I have to bring this talk to a close,  is to show why I think recognizing that imagination as a means of grasping reality is something of vital importance to us, and why it is necessary in order to meet the challenges facing us in our crisis of the ego. The importance of having a good grasp on reality should not require too much argument, to be sure. What is necessary is to show that although we think we already have reality well in hand, we don’t. And again, what I mean by “reality” here isn’t anything abstract or metaphysical or spiritual or cosmic. I mean common, everyday reality, the unavoidable kind. It was his weak grasp on this reality, the reality of his life, that led Hesse’s Steppenwolf to grow to hate his pleasant, comfortable existence and consider slitting his throat as a stimulating alternative. We can say this is our existential reality.

If a man as intelligent, cultured, and mature as Hesse’s Steppenwolf – and, we can assume, Hesse himself – could so lose his grip on what was real and meaningful about his existence – “Mozart and the stars” – that he could be brought to thoughts of suicide, how better would a less developed individual fare when subject to the same tendency we all have to what Colin Wilson calls “life-devaulation,” which is really a way of expressing our common sin of getting used to things and taking them for granted? What does “getting used to” or “taking for granted” mean? It means that we begin to notice only the fact of some reality or other, and lose sight of its meaning. It means a failure of our imagination to hold on to the full reality. We devalue it. The mere fact is easy to retain – our senses help us here. To retain the meaning requires a kind of effort on our part, and we easily forget this or find it too taxing to make. And because we fail to make this effort, we fall into the trap of accepting the half-reality we perceive – the side of it available to our senses – as the whole of reality, and we base our decisions about life on this diminished picture.

Because of this we are apt to make bad decisions, ones based on only what is immediately before our eyes. That is, short-sighted ones.

This cannot be good.

We can say that all acts of imagination are designed to in some way retard or reverse this process. Going about life in this state is only a kind of half-living. We are all subject to this. We are all Steppenwolves, of one kind or another. But we too can all remember Mozart and the stars. And it is important that we do because the crises facing us will require our grip on reality to be as firm and tenacious as we can make it. In fact, it’s the case today that in many ways “reality” is up for grabs. This is something I have written about in my most recent book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, which looks at how certain ideas about how we “create our own reality,” stemming from occultism and postmodernism, have informed contemporary politics in the United States, Russia, and also in Europe. So the question of securing a firm grip on reality is not solely a philosophical or psychological one. It has also bled over into politics. I would say that in general today, reality is under threat.

Regaining the lost knowledge of the imagination, or even recognizing that such a knowledge is there to be regained, can, I believe, help us here. It may be a means by which we can find a way through our crises that brings the two dimensions of our experience – facts and their meaning – together in a collaboration that is “just right.” If so, that would be a reality worth creating.






Germany, Japan, Italy? It’s not the Axis Powers but Dark Stars and Lost Knowledge.

I will be in Calw, Germany, later this month giving a talk on the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at a conference on “The Crisis of the Ego” held by the Rosicrucian Society on October 20-21. Calw is the birthplace of Hermann Hesse, whose books I devoured as a teenager in the early 1970s, along with several million other of his posthumous readers. Some years ago I visited Hesse’s home in Montagnola, Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1962. Seeing his birthplace completes the circle as it were.

I’m looking forward to the conference for several reasons, but an especial one is that I will have a chance to see my friend Rudiger Sunner’s new film, about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – another German language writer whose work I’ve read and re-read more times than I can remember. Angel Over Europe: Rilke as God Seeker promises to be a spiritually insightful and culturally significant work – if any of Rudiger’s other films are anything to go by.

The Japanese and Italian rights to Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump have been sold. My Italian publisher, Tlon – their name comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, about an imaginary country – has asked me to write an introduction to the Italian edition, bringing the book up-to-date on events in Europe and especially in Italy, with the rise of the populist movement there, spurred on by Steve Bannon’s European crusade. I’m glad that my editor feels the book is very timely, but concerned that as its relevance increases, the dangers it points to increase as well.

I also have an article spelling out the differences between the “ancient wisdom,” perennial philosophy, and Traditionalism in the latest issue of New Dawn. The people there have been very helpful with suggestions and material useful for my current project, a book about the “return of Holy Russia” that I am doing for Inner Traditions and which I assume will be out sometime next year. I never thought I’d be writing a kind of mini-history of Russia but destiny doesn’t always announce itself ahead of schedule. I’m glad I’ve had a reason to go back and re-read early inspirations such as Dostoyevsky, the Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, and the tragic genius Gogol, among others, and also to explore new material. A lot has been churned up by our recent plunge into occult politics, but it isn’t only the nasty bits that rise to the surface.

And I am happy to announce that one of the rarest of Colin Wilson’s early works, his collection of essays on writers and literature, Eagles and Earwigs, has been published in a new edition. It’s edited by Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley, published by Todd Swift at Eyewear Publishing, and has a preface by me, recounting, among other things, my visit to Wilson back in 1983 and my joy at finding a copy of the book at the old Reading Room of the British Museum. You may not be able to meet the author, but you can have the pleasure of reading his assessment of writers like Ayn Rand, John Cowper Powys, David Lindsay, L H. Myers and others.

Dark Stars, the Meaning of Life, and that Jordan Peterson article

My interview with Nikita Petrov about Dark Star Rising for MeaningofLife  TV is now up on You Tube. It seems to have generated a lot of discussion. But you can see for yourself here.

And an article I wrote about Jordan Peterson during the height of Petersonmania has also been put online by the good people at New Dawn magazine. Here it is.

And for those in the London area, I’m at Watkins Bookshop tonight, spelling out what these dark stars mean in our dim time.

That’s enough for a late summer post.


Madame Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky, and Magical Politics

I’ve posted some video recordings of some recent talks on You Tube. I tweet about them when I post, but I’m not sure if everyone here sees this, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put the links together in one place. So, in chronological order:

Madame Blavatsky, The Mother of Modern Spirituality, Thomas Carlyle House.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

In Search of P.D. Ouspensky, Kensington Central Library.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, Conway Hall

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book)

An interview with me about Dark Star Rising for Rebel Wisdom.

For those in the London area, I’ll be talking about Jung, Maslow, and Colin Wilson in the context of Individuation, Self-Actualization, and getting “beyond the robot” at the Day on Meaning at Birkbeck College, University of London, this July 29th. Some tickets are still available.

My talk on Aleister Crowley for the Century Club 18 July is sold out. An encore is scheduled for September.

I’ll be giving the closing talk for the Decadence, Magic (K) and the Occult conference at Goldsmith’s College 20 July. My topic is “Occultism in the World Today” and will focus on all the strange occult politics I’ve been writing about of late.

On 9 August I’ll be giving a free talk at Watkins Bookshop on Dark Star Rising. I’ll post details when they’re available.

A Dark Star Round Up

As you might expect, it’s been a busy week. Dark Star Rising; Magick and Power in the Age of Trump has been released in the states and will be available in the UK on 25 June. I’ve been promoting it left, right, and center, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future, with more interviews, more podcasts, and my talk for the UK launch at Conway Hall on June 26. In the meantime, I thought I’d gather some of the recent interviews and podcasts together, so those interested can find them all in one place. Here goes.

My interview with Sean Stone on RT’s Watching the Hawks Part 1 and Part 2.

My interview with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing’s Incredibly Interesting Authors.

My interview with Erik Davis at Expanding Mind.

My interview at Aeon Byte.

An excerpt from the book at The Daily Grail.

An excerpt from the book at Reality Sandwich.

My interview with Gordon White at Rune Soup.

And an interview with me at Occult of Personality.

I hope you can enjoy these. I’ll be adding more as things progress and stars may rise, dark or otherwise.