This is the opening to my new book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson.
Sixty years ago Wilson woke up to overnight fame with the publication of his first book, The Outsider, a study in creativity, alienation, and extreme mental states. At twenty-four, he was being hailed as a genius and celebrated as Britain's own "homegrown existentialist." Yet success is fickle and soon after his debut, Wilson fell from grace, the boy wonder quickly becoming persona non grata with the critics. He, and the other Angry Young Men - Britain's buttoned down Beat Generation - were summarily chastised or, in Wilson's case, ignored. Yet Wilson went on to write well over a hundred books in a career lasting more than half a century, titles like The Occult, The Mind Parasites, A Criminal History of Mankind, and From Atlantis to the Sphinx, to name only a few. After a long illness he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-two. The book begins with an account of my journey to meet Wilson, what I call a "Pilgrimage to Tetherdown."
A Pilgrimage to Tetherdown
In the summer of 1983 I found myself travelling to Cornwall, in the far west of England. For the past several years I had been reading the work of a writer whose ideas interested me deeply and I was on my way to meet him. His name was Colin Wilson.
Wilson had achieved overnight fame in 1956 at the age of twenty-four with his first book, The Outsider, a study in existentialism, alienation and “extreme mental states.” No one was more astonished than Wilson himself to discover that this work dealing with the angst and spiritual crises of figures like Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, T.E. Lawrence, H. G. Wells and others had become an instant bestseller. But surprisingly it had. Reviews were glowing and critics tripped over each other to hail England’s own “home-grown existentialist.” After years of struggle, sacrifice and hard work, Wilson had made it. The Outsider was “in.”
The glory, alas, was short lived. Fame, especially in England, is fickle, and after the initial praise – “A MAJOR WRITER, AND HE’S ONLY TWENTY-FOUR” the headline of one review ran – the press and serious critics soon turned on what they were now calling a “messiah of the milk bars.” The tag came from Wilson’s association with a group of writers the press had christened the “Angry Young Men” – roughly equivalent to America’s “Beat Generation” - people like John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, and others. Although Wilson had very little in common with them, he was guilty by association, and when the critical tide turned against these angry men, he was caught up in it. In practically no time at all, Wilson went from being a boy genius to persona non grata, a status among the literary establishment that he laboured against for the rest of his career and was never quite able to throw off.
It was after this critical thrashing that Wilson left London and moved to a remote village in Cornwall. Here he hunkered down and over the years developed what he called a “new existentialism,” an “evolutionary,” optimistic philosophy which would eventually include areas of “the occult” and mysticism. He hoped this would counter the bleak dead end in which he believed the existentialism of Sartre, Camus and Heidegger had found itself, and in which most of modern culture had also become mired.
Wilson’s idea of an optimistic, evolutionary existentialism excited me. I had spent the past several years tracking his books down, reading everything by him that I could find. That was why I found myself at the tail end of a two month sojourn in Europe – much of it spent visiting “sacred sites” – making the journey down to Cornwall to meet him.
I had first came across Wilson’s work some years earlier, in 1975, when I was nineteen and living on New York’s Bowery, playing in the band Blondie. I had recently developed an interest in the occult. Punk was on the rise but remnants of the previous hippie generation could still be found and among the books I read at the time was Wilson’sThe Occult, which had been published in 1971 and which briefly re-established his reputation after the critical bashing following The Outsider.
What was exciting about The Occult was that Wilson approached the mystical, magical and paranormal from the perspective of existential philosophy. It was not a book of spells or accounts of haunted houses but an attempt to understand occult phenomena in terms of a philosophy of consciousness that Wilson had been developing for more than a decade and which I later understood was based on the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, whose “phenomenology” became the basis for existentialism.
Explanations of phenomenology and its importance for Wilson and for human consciousness in general will be found in the pages that follow. Here I will say that the essence of Husserl’s philosophy, and the aspect of it that made the most impact on Wilson, was what he called “intentionality.” Simply put, this is the recognition that consciousness does not passively reflect the world as a mirror does, and which has been the standard idea of consciousness since the philosopher René Descartes established it in the seventeenth century. Instead it actively reaches out and grabs it – although we, for the most part, are unaware of this activity.
Consciousness, then, for Husserl, is not a mirror but a kind of hand. And while a mirror reflects what is in front of it whether it wants to or not – it has no choice in the matter – our hands, we know, can have a strong grasp or a weak one or, in fact, none at all.
It was something along these lines that Wilson tried to get across to me when I finally arrived at his home, called Tetherdown, near the small fishing village of Gorran Haven, on a scorching July day. I had called him from a phonebox in Penzance, where I was staying. He was friendly and immediately invited me to come and stay the night; he even offered to pick me up at the train station in St. Austell, the nearest one.
Two things stand out immediately from that first trip to Tetherdown. One was Wilson’s house, set back from the Cornish cliffs, where he had lived with his wife Joy since 1959. It was filled floor to ceiling with more books than I had seen before, outside of a public library or a well-stocked shop. Thousands of them crammed the bookshelves that lined practically every wall; the most recent estimate of the number of volumes in Wilson’s library was 30,000, not to mention the LPs, cassettes and later CDs and DVDS and other items that made up his research material.
My other strong memory is of a long, wine-fuelled evening during which Colin did his best to explain Husserl’s ideas about consciousness to me. The essence of it escaped me later but by the time I went to sleep that evening I was sure I had it in my grasp. We continued the conversation the next morning, before I headed back to London. I can remember Colin sitting with me, outside his kitchen, in the bright morning sun, telling me that if he made a certain mental effort, he could reproduce a mild version of the effects of mescaline, the drug that prompted Aldous Huxley’s influential book The Doors of Perception. I believed him and was determined, at some point, to be able to do this myself.
(Excerpted from Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson.)
This is an excerpt from my new book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World,a look at the history of the western esoteric tradition as seen through the lens of new developments in split-brain theory and the evolution of consciousness.
My central argument is that the western esoteric tradition has been the victim of a smear campaign, conducted by the left brain against the right. Yet despite the efforts of reductionist minds to eradicate it, the western esoteric tradition remains and throughout the book I show how its insights and intuitions have informed some of the most important figures in western culture and thought. The following section shows how Dante's Divine Comedy can be read as a key text in what the poet and William Blake scholar Kathleen Raine calls "the learning of the imagination."
Dante’s Inner Voyage
Like all great masterworks, The Divine Comedy can be read on several levels, and Dante himself, in his adoption of four levels of reading – his “polysemous interpretation” that we can trace back to the Neoplatonists – tells us that there are different ways to understand his account of his inner journey. In a letter to his benefactor, Can Grande (“Big Dog”) - to whom he dedicated The Divine Comedy - Dante spelled out what he meant. There were, he said, two basic ways of reading, the literal and the symbolic, a distinction we have come across before. But symbolic reading itself has gradations, what Dante called the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic.
The literal reading of Dante’s journey, he told Can Grande, is simply the state of the soul after death. His narrative can be read simply as a Christian vision of what happens to the soul when we die. “Allegorical” in Dante’s time had a particular meaning, and had to do with showing how events in the Old Testament prefigured those in the New Testament, thereby showing that the Old Testament is a “pre-echo” of Christ’s coming, and how He is its fulfilment. The moral sense is a kind of psychological reading; it tells us of the state of the soul. So while the literal sense of Dante’s opening line “Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,” tells us that, at around thirty-five, Dante found himself in a dense forest, the moral reading means that Dante found himself in a state of alienation, of uncertainty about himself and his life, what we call a “mid-life crisis.”
All of these different levels are important, but the level of interpretation that concerns us most here is the anagogic, that is, the spiritual, which, in modern terms, we can say relates to changes in Dante’s consciousness. “The inner journey of the poet” that Dante undertakes is, as Kathleen Raine puts it, “an exploration of the psyche, of the inner worlds and states of the poet himself.” And as Swedenborg would say some centuries later, the hells Dante enters are not literal places of torment, but “states” of the soul, constricting circles of selfishness and egocentricity which the poet must confront before he can be free of them. Here the literal, left-brain approach to reading must be abandoned and a more metaphorical tack taken, something Dante told Can Grande in his letter. And while The Divine Comedy is full of Dante’s personal animosities, his political views, and some fairly orthodox Christian teaching, it is also an attempt to synthesize all the knowledge that was available to him at the time, of both the spiritual and the secular worlds, into a universal vision, an attempt, that is, at unifying our two disparate cognitive halves into a coherent whole.
It is not too difficult to find signs that Dante’s inner journey shares in many of the esoteric themes encountered in this book. The three main settings for his inner voyage – hell, purgatory, and paradise – can be seen as the basic blueprint for spiritual awakening. Hell, then, is the material world we find ourselves in, with its allurements and traps and restrictions. It is a kind of false, half- life, and like many of us, when Dante awakens to the fact that it is leading nowhere, that its temptations are hollow – when, that is, he finds himself in the dark wood - he is disturbed, and seeks a way out of it.
Purgatory represents the initiatory trials, the purifications and spiritual struggles necessary to free the soul from the weight of matter and prepare it for its spiritual awakening. This happens in paradise, when the soul, hitherto lost in darkness, has risen in the light of the divine, and having been freed from false desires and vision, shares in the brilliance of the true light and beholds the unity of all creation. That it is the Virgin who grants Dante the supreme vision, and that this consists of an “exalted light,” tells us that his mystical experience is in the Sophianic and Neoplatonic tradition; Dante even tells us that when Dionysius the Areopagite thought of the “angelic orders,” he named them “true and best.” That Dante’s journey takes place from Good Friday to Easter links it to similar “rebirth” narratives we have looked at, and that he sees God as three concentric circles symbolizing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reminds us of one of Plotinus’s few concessions to imagery, when he depicts the One, the Intellect, and the World Soul in the same way.
Dante’s inner geography is also in line with the different but similar ontological ladders we have encountered so far. The journey from the circles of Hell, up through Mount Purgatory and Paradise, leads to the same celestial trajectory as the Hermetic “journey through the planets.” Having passed from the earth, Dante must travel through the “seven heavens” (the planets) that will lead him to the “eighth” and “ninth heaven,” rather as the Hermetist travelled to the “eighth” and “ninth sphere,” or as the kabbalist worked his way through the sephiroth. Here, the seven deadly sins of hell, after being transformed through Dante’s struggles in purgatory, become the cardinal virtues in service to the divine order, just as the Hermetist transmuted the heavy weight of the planets into spiritual energies transforming the soul.
At the top of this mystical spiral, Dante has a vision of the transcendent God, of the Neoplatonic One, the “tenth heaven” that is beyond time, space, and matter. Here Dante is beyond words; he has reached the union with the divine sought by those who walk the via negativa. Yet Dante asks the “Light supreme” to relent a little, so that he is not entirely overcome and so that in his words “may burn/One single spark of all Thy glory’s light/For future generations to discern.” Like all writers, Dante wants to communicate his experience, to capture it so that it will not disappear, “as the sun melts the imprint on the snow.” The ultimate experience of the divine may be beyond expression but Dante the poet, a traveller on the via positiva, knows that man needs beauty, images and symbols in order to truly love. We should be thankful that the divine granted Dante his wish, and dimmed its glory, so that we can share in some small part of it.
This plea for the need for images and symbols links Dante to the Imaginal World, to Suhrawardi’s intermediary realm, through which the reader of The Divine Comedy has just journeyed. Like “the stranger” in Suhrawardi’s “initiatory tales”, Dante meets an inner figure who will serve as his guide, something C.G. Jung would also do some centuries later when he embarked on his own descent into the underworld during his own “mid-life crisis” following the breakup of his friendship with Freud. In the first two parts of Dante’s voyage, through hell and purgatory, his guide is Virgil (70 B.C. – 19 B.C.), the Roman poet who, like Homer before him, and like Orpheus before Homer, made the journey into the underworld. Yet Virgil, who represents the best of the classical world, can only take Dante so far. When he reaches the limits of the earthly realm Virgil must hand over his charge to Beatrice, who will take Dante further: we can say that philosophy and reason (the left brain) must allow insight and intuition (the right brain) to take charge now. In order to reach Beatrice, Dante has had to climb through Mount Purgatory, much as “the stranger” in Suhrawardi’s initiatory tales must make his way up the difficult slopes of “Mount Qâf,” the “cosmic mountain,” in order to find his true self and reach the “spiritual city,” Hūrqalyā.
The outskirts of Hūrqalyā, we’ve seen, start at the “convex surface” of the “Ninth Sphere, or Sphere of Spheres” which encompasses the whole cosmos, much as the Primum Mobile or “Ninth Heaven” of Dante’s geocentric system is the last layer of materiality before the transcendent realms of the unmanifest source. In pointing out these similarities between Dante’s journey and Suhrawardi’s account of his own inner voyages, I am not suggesting that Dante somehow knew of Suhrawardi’s work, although we have seen that there is good reason to believe that the Arabic and Sufi versions of central Neoplatonic themes most likely informed the Sophianic tradition within which Dante worked. More important and initiatory in its own right, is the recognition that Dante and Suhrawardi’s accounts are similar because they both journeyed to the same place, to the “inner worlds and states of the poet himself.” That is, into the human mind or, as we have already called it, the mundus imaginalis, the Imaginal World that resides within and without all of us.
Although Dante’s and Suhrawardi’s inner worlds are decorated, so to say, with the symbols and iconography of their own particular place and time – Catholic and Islamic as the case may be – the basic terrain, the fundamental geography is the same. We can say that both share a kind of similar topography of the imagination. This is a tradition, not in Guénon’s sense of a specific doctrine handed down through the ages, but in Kathleen Raine’s sense of a “learning of the Imagination.” It is a tradition that has its source, not in a “secret teaching,” revealed to mystic sages at the dawn of time, but in the human mind itself.
A Look At Our Other Way of Knowing
This evening I’m going to look at a tradition of thought and a body of ideas that the historian of the occult James Webb calls “rejected knowledge.” I’m going to see if we can arrive at answers to four questions:
What is this tradition?
Why is it “rejected?”
Why is it important?
What does it mean for us?
Now before I start I’m going to ask you all to engage in a bit of philosophy. I’m going to ask you to perform a simple but very important philosophical exercise. This is something called “bracketing,” and it was developed in the early twentieth century by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl is important for founding a philosophical school and discipline called phenomenology. We needn’t know a great deal about it and I’m not going to burden you with a lot of history or definitions. Put briefly, Husserl was scandalized by the mess that western philosophy had gotten itself into by the late nineteenth century and as he loved philosophy – he was obsessed by it – he thought the best way to proceed was to start from scratch. Now, I should point out that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch is a well-tested tradition in philosophy, so Husserl was not doing anything radically new. But then, in another sense he was.
Phenomenology is essentially a method of describing phenomena, which means the things that appear to us, whether physical objects in the outer world, or my thoughts, images, feelings and so on that seem to reside in my inner world, my mind. If you look a tree, that is a phenomenon, and if you then close your eyes and imagine the tree, that is a phenomenon too. Both are objects that are presented to consciousness, and Husserl was interested in how phenomena present themselves to consciousness, and what role our own minds have in this presentation.
Now what Husserl suggested is that to begin this study, what we need to do is put aside everything we think we know about our object of observation. So if you were in his class and you were given an object to observe – say a book, a flower, or a chair, it doesn’t really matter – he would say “Don’t tell me what it is; tell me what you see.”
Now for any philosophers in the audience I admit I am simplifying things very much, but for what I am going to ask you to do that is all we need. The method of putting aside everything we think we know about something is what Husserl called “bracketing.” Basically it means to put aside your presumed knowledge of whatever you are observing, and place it in brackets. Placing it in brackets means that you don’t reject your knowledge, you don’t deny it or change your mind about it. You simply put it aside for the duration of your phenomenological work. You take it out of the equation for the time being. You don’t throw it away. You simply pick it up as it were and put it over there for a time. It was in this way that Husserl wanted to arrive at what he called a “presuppositionless philosophy,” basically a philosophy that begins without any preconceived ideas.
Now what I’d like you all to do is to become phenomenologists for a short while, at least for the duration of this talk. I’d like you to “bracket” everything you think you know about the world, about reality, about the universe and our place in it. Again, I’m not asking you to forget this or to reject it or to deny it. I am simply asking you to put it aside for a short while. In Husserl’s case this usually meant putting aside questions about the “reality” of something, about whether it was “true” or not, about its “essence,” and any “explanations” that could account for it, whether materialist ones or idealist ones. Phenomenologists don’t ask those questions, at least not at the beginning. What they try to do is describe the objects of consciousness and get some idea of what is involved in how they appear to us.
What this exercise is supposed to do is to make whatever you are observing “strange,” “unfamiliar,” “unknown,” “mysterious.” One definition of philosophy that I like very much and which can apply to our exercise here in “bracketing” is that it is “the resolute pursuit of the obvious, leading to radical astonishment.” Because one outcome of a successful exercise in “bracketing” is that it transforms something you believed you knew very well, into something quite mysterious. Something, perhaps, that surprises you.
So, let’s see if we can all be phenomenologists for a short time and temporarily put aside everything we know about the world we live in and our place in it. This means bracketing the Big Bang, Darwin, and all the scientific explanations about the world that we’ve been offered over the years, about atoms and electrons and Higgs-bosons and selfish genes and DNA and so forth. Take all of that and put it in brackets.
Okay? Have we done that? Good.
The tradition of rejected knowledge that I’m going to talk about is what we can call the Hermetic tradition, or the Western Inner Tradition, or the Esoteric Tradition, or the Occult tradition. I should point out that “Hermetic” comes from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of philosophy and writing, about whom I have written a book, The Quest For Hermes Trismegitus. Esoteric means “inner” and occult means “not seen.” Each of these names has a very specific sense but in a broad, general application they all refer to the same thing. They refer to a body of ideas and philosophies and spiritual practices that were for many centuries held in very high regard in the west, but which in the last few centuries – since the rise of science in the 17th century – have lost their status and been relegated to the dust bin of history. They are rooted in several what we can call mystical or metaphysical philosophies and religions of the past, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and related belief systems. We needn’t know exactly what these are now and we’ll try to get some idea of some of them as go along. We now think of these things and the practices associated with them as superstitions, as myths, more or less as nonsense. I’m thinking of things like astrology, alchemy, magic, mysticism, the Tarot, or of experiences like telepathy, precognition, out-of-the-body experiences, of mystical experiences, of feelings of oneness with nature, with the cosmos, of what we can call “cosmic consciousness,” of belief in life after death, in consciousness existing outside the body, of astral travel, of visionary experiences, of contact with angels and other spiritual beings, of strange states of mind that lead to sudden, accurate knowledge of and insight into the workings of the universe, and into the mystery of our own being, of dimensions beyond space and time, of the experience of the soul and the spirit.
Experiences of these and similar things and a real knowledge about them were for very many centuries accepted by both men and women of learning and also by the everyday people, the common folk. These people lived in a world in which such things were possible. More than this, they lived in a world in which such things were considered of the highest importance. Much more important than the everyday, physical world they inhabited. That has gained a supreme importance only in the last few centuries, and it has gained this importance through diminishing the importance of what we may call the “spiritual” or “invisible” side of reality. We’ll return to this shortly.
To give you an idea of how important this tradition of thought was considered, let me mention a few of the people who believed in it and occupied themselves with it.
Given that he is considered the father of modern science and the modern world in general, it is surprising to know that Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientific mind in western history, was a passionate devotee of this tradition. Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity. Gravity itself is an “occult” force. “Occult” simple means hidden, or unseen, and as far as I know, no one has seen gravity. Newton’s investigation into the physical laws of the universe – that have allowed us to put men on the moon and probes out into the deepest regions of space - emerged from his life-long interest in alchemy, in understanding the secret meaning of the Bible and, like Stephen Hawking in our own time, knowing the “mind of God.”
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and much else, was an early member of the Theosophical Society, the most important occult, esoteric or spiritual society in modern times, founded in New York in 1875 by that remarkable Russian emigre, Madame Blavatsky. Along with all the other inventions he is known for, Edison was very interested in “spirit communication,” and for a time he worked on developing a way of recording messages from the “other world.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was deeply involved in Freemasonry, a society that in its early years was profoundly informed by Hermetic, esoteric ideas. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, is a kind of initiation ritual in music. Beethoven was also interested in Freemasonry as was Franz Joseph Haydn and several other famous classical composers. I might also mention that the earliest operas were based on alchemical ideas. I should also mention that it is well-known that George Washington and other of America’s founding fathers were Masons.
William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, and one of the great teachers at Harvard, had a powerful interest in mystical experiences – so powerful that he experimented with nitrous oxide in order to have one himself. He was also deeply interested in the paranormal and he investigated several mediums. His friend, the French philosopher Henri Bergson, a Nobel Prize winner and for a time the most famous thinker in the world, shared James’ interest and was a president of the Society for Psychical Research.
Many poets and writers and artists were very keen on this tradition of “rejected knowledge.” The German poet Goethe practiced alchemy. W. B. Yeats – another Nobel prize winner - was a Theosophist and also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the most important occult societies of modern times. The Swedish dramatist August Strindberg was an alchemist too and also a great reader of the Swedish mystical thinker Emanuel Swedenborg. I should mention that Johnny Appleseed, the early American ecologist, was also a devotee of Swedenborg, as was the poet William Blake, who saw angels as a child and had conversations with spirits and inhabitants of “other worlds” throughout his life.
The Renaissance, the revival of classical thought that took place in the 15th century and produced some of the most treasured works of art in the western world, works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and others, was saturated in Hermetic, esoteric thought. The Renaissance is generally seen as a time when the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers were re-discovered after being lost for centuries. But it was even more a time when the ancient teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, thrice-greatest Hermes, the founder of magic and writing, were rediscovered after being obscured for a millennia.
Some of the early church fathers were followers of some aspects of this tradition and before them Plato, the greatest philosophical mind of the west, was, if not a devotee, certainly a fellow traveller, and we have reason to believe that much of Plato’s philosophy was informed with ideas and insights gathered from this tradition.
This list could go on. I mention these names here just to show that, although this tradition is “rejected” by modern thinking, some of the most important figures in science and the arts embraced it whole-heartedly. This, of course, doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that if world-renowned scientists, Nobel Prize winners, influential poets, musicians, and philosophers – and again, this is just a fraction of the important people with an interest in this tradition – had the time for it and devoted much energy and thought to it, it must have something going for it. Or should we accept that Newton and Mozart and Goethe and the others were simply “superstitious,” weak-minded, gullible characters who were simply not as smart as modern sceptics ,who consider the tradition these men of genius felt themselves to be a part of sheer nonsense?
I don’t know about you, but I hesitate to call Newton or Goethe or Mozart weak-minded and gullible. So if they weren’t, why were they interested in something we in the modern world reject?
This leads me to my second question: why was this tradition rejected? And who, exactly, rejected it?
The short answer is that it was rejected because of the rise of science, which began its road to dominance in the 17th century. The story is actually more complicated than that and involves the church and the rise of humanism, an outgrowth of the Renaissance, but for our purposes it is sufficient to contrast the way science sees the world with the way the rejected tradition sees it. Or, I should I say, the way in which science knows the world and the way in which the rejected tradition knows it. Because fundamentally, this is the issue. All of the different philosophies and teachings that are rooted in the rejected tradition – magic, alchemy, astrology, mysticism and so on – all share in common a particular way of knowing the world. And it was this “way of knowing” that science, or what became what we call “science,” rejected, along with the knowledge accumulated through that knowing.
Now as “knowing” is something we do with our minds, it is something directly related to our consciousness. Knowing is an activity performed by a consciousness, whether yours, mine, an alien’s, or, perhaps, an intelligent machine’s.
One of the things that Husserl and other phenomenological philosophers discovered is that different kinds of consciousness, or different modes of the same consciousness, can “know” things in different ways. Conversely, they also discovered that they can also know different “things.” We can see this from our own experience. I know, say, my name, what the product of 2x2 is, and also how to ride a bicycle. But I know these in different ways. I know my name because at some point someone told me what it was, and by now I have accumulated boxes of documents confirming this. I know that 2x2=4 because logic and reason tell me it does. Try as I may to “know” that 2x2=5, I can’t because it doesn’t. Of course, I can be coerced into agreeing that 2x2=5, as the people in Orwell’s 1984 are, but this isn’t really knowing. And I know how to ride a bicycle because, after many failed attempts I finally “got the knack” of doing it. But if you try to tell someone how it is done, as if in a step-by-step manual, you will find that it is not so easy to do. I can show someone how to do it, but to give a clear and adequate account of how I do it is actually quite difficult.
Another example. I mentioned Mozart, Beethoven and other composers. I know that Beethoven’s late string quartets are about something deeply moving and profound, but I would find it just as difficult to say what they are about as I would if I tried to tell someone how to ride a bike. I can’t say exactly what the music is about, but I would also reject any account that said it was just vibrations of air, which, physically, is what the music is. It’s about something more than that, about something deep, profound, even mystical, but exactly what, I can’t say.
Or say you have a hunch or an intuition about something and are very certain it is important. A friend asks “But how do you know?” All you can say is “I don’t know, but I do!”
This other kind of “knowing,” the kind that recognizes something deep in music, or in poetry, or in works of art, or accepts intuitions and hunches, that knows with the gut, as it were, is, it seems to me, related to our rejected tradition.
Now what differentiated science – and again, let me say I know this is a huge generalisation, and let me make clear that I am no enemy of science, but of what we can call “scientism,” which is a kind of “fundamentalist science” in the way that we have “fundamentalist Christianity” or “fundamentalist Islam” – what made it different from earlier modes of knowledge and methods of acquiring it is that it focused solely on observing physical phenomena and, in a way, did its own kind of bracketing by forgetting any ideas about what might be behind the phenomena, making them happen. Roughly this meant jettisoning God, or the angels, or spirits, or soul, or any kind of purpose or mind at work in nature. It puts aside any theories or traditional ideas and just watched and saw what happened. This approach to understanding the world had its roots in the philosopher Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil. But where Plato was interested in understanding what we can call the invisible higher realities behind or above the physical world – what he called the Ideas or Forms, a kind of metaphysical blueprint for reality perceived through the mind, not the senses – Aristotle did just the opposite. He devoted himself to observing the natural world.
Aristotle’s theories dominated the west for centuries but eventually were discarded. But between the two – he and Plato – we can see the different ways of knowing. Aristotle is the first “research scientist, “ collecting data and devising theories to account for why things are the way they are. Plato is much more interested in the higher reality of which the physical world is just a shadow. He often uses myth in his accounts and started life as a poet. Aristotle started the tradition of the unreadable philosopher. He also started systematic logic, in which A can only be A and never Not A and so on. For Aristotle, something is or it isn’t. There’s no middle ground. He sees an “either/or” kind of world rather than a “both/and” sort of one.
But along with paying attention to the physical world, which people had been doing all along, science brought to its investigation a powerful tool: measurement. It discovered that the forces at work in the physical world could be measured. Speed, mass, weight, acceleration, space, extension, and so on could be quantified. And what was remarkable about this is that with enough knowledge of these quantities, events could be accurately predicted. It is this predictive power of measurement that enabled men to get to the moon and space probes to shoot past Pluto. Needless to say this was truly an achievement and it has enriched our lives and the lives of our ancestors immeasurably – if you can forgive an atrocious pun. But one result of this is that it split the world in two, basically between the kinds of things that could be measured in this way, and the kinds of things that can’t.
The person who made this split official was Galileo. What Galileo said was that all the things that could be measured were primary phenomena. They were “really real,” and existed in their own right. They were objective. The other things were less real. They were subjective, which meant that they only existed in our minds, our psyches. So the brilliant, moving colors of a sunset are our subjective experience of the objective reality, which is wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Color, scent, texture, taste, are all subjective. They don’t exist on their own. We add them to our experience. But they don’t “really” exist, at least not in the way that the primary things, that can be measured, do. We can’t measure the awe and wonder we feel looking at the sunset, but we can measure the electromagnetic radiations we are being dazzled by.
This worked well for science. It gave it something hard and solid to hold on to. But this was at a cost. Because what we value in experience are precisely those things that science has told us for some centuries now are not real. The things that science can measure accurately and make effective predictions from are things that no one except scientists get excited about. And the kinds of things that thrill all of us, science has explained to us are only in our head. The world really isn’t beautiful. We see it that way. But it itself isn’t. Not really.
The other thing the new way of knowing did was to break things up into smaller and smaller bits and pieces, which were subject to cause and effect. There was no pattern holding things together, no “great chain of being,” no “web of life” or “whole” into which everything found its place. A world of atoms subject to physical forces could account for everything. The world really was a huge machine, a mechanical cosmos that needed no mind or intelligence or spirit or anything else to run, merely blind physical forces.
Now, what does all this have to do with our “rejected tradition?”
Well, the kind of knowing associated with that tradition is the polar opposite of the kind that made science so successful. And I should point out that science is successful because it is immensely helpful in our attempt to control the world. It has immense utilitarian and practical benefits. It gets results. It makes things happen. The kind of knowing associated with the other tradition isn’t like this. It isn’t practical or utilitarian in that sense. It isn’t a “know how,” more a “know why.” It’s a knowing that isn’t about controlling the world – which, in itself, is not bad, and absolutely necessary for our survival – but of participating with it, even of communicating and, as we say today, interacting with it.
Probably the most fundamental way in which these two kinds of knowing differ is that in the new, scientific mode, we stand apart from the world. We keep it at a distance, at arm’s length. It becomes an object of observation; we become spectators, separated from what we are observing. With this separation the world is objectified, made into an object. What this means is that it loses, or is seen not to have, an inside. It is a machine, soul-less, inanimate, dead. We object to this when it happens to us, when we feel that someone is not taking into account our inner world, our self, and is seeing us as an object, as something without freedom, will, completely determined. But it is through this mode that we can get to grips with the world and arrange it according to our needs.
Whether we are scientists or not, this is the way in which we experience the world now, at least most of the time. There is the world: solid, mute, oblivious, and firmly “out there.” And “inside here” is a mind, a little puddle of consciousness in an otherwise unconscious universe.
The mode of knowing of the rejected tradition is the opposite of this. It does recognize the “inside” of things. It does not stand apart from the world and observe it from behind a plate glass window. It participates with the world. It sees the world as alive, as animate, as a living, even a conscious being. And it sees connections, links among everything in this world. Where the new mode worked best by breaking the world down into easily handled bits and pieces that were best understood as subject to physical laws of cause of effect, the kind of knowing of the rejected tradition saw connections, correspondences among everything in the world, it saw everything as part of a total living whole. We can say that where the scientific mode works through analysis, the other mode works through analogy and synthesis. Elements of the world are linked for it not by mechanical cause and effect, but by similarity, by resemblance, by a kind of poetry, by what we can call living metaphors. Plants, colors, sounds, scents, shapes, patterns, the position of the stars, the times of day, different gods and goddesses, angels and spirits were woven together into subtle webs of relations, where each echoed the other in some mysterious way. In ancient times, this was known as “the sympathy of all things,” the anima mundi, or “soul of the world.” We can say that instead of wanting to take things apart in order to see what makes them tick – and the machine analogy here is telling – the rejected tradition wants to link them together to see how they live. And where the new way of knowing worked with facts and formulae, the other way worked with images and symbols.
The most concise expression of this other way of knowing is the ancient Hermetic dictum, “as above, so below.” This comes from the fabled Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a work of alchemy attributed to Hermes but which makes its appearance round about the eight century AD. This means that there is a correspondence between the things in heaven and the things on earth. In one sense, this is understood as a correspondence between the position and movements of the stars and human destiny. This is astrology. But in a broader, more fundamental sense it means that man, human beings are a kind of microcosm, a little universe, and that we contain within ourselves vast inner spaces, that mirror the vast outer spaces in which our physical world exists. In the rejected tradition, the whole universe exists within each of us, and it is our task to bring these dormant cosmic forces and realities to life. If in the new, scientific tradition we have begun to explore outer space, in the rejected tradition we turn our attention inward and explore inner space. And just as they do on Star Trek, we find inside ourselves “strange new worlds.”
This is a very different picture of humankind than what we get with the scientific mode of knowing. There we are just another collection of bits and pieces pushed and pulled by a variety of forces, with no special role to play or purpose to serve. Physical forces, biological forces, social forces, economic forces have us at their beck and call. There is no universe inside us. Our minds are a product of purely material forces and are driven by physical needs and appetites.
The rejected tradition sees humankind as very different, as central to the universe, as the answer to the riddle of existence. And this is why it is important to understand its place in our history.
One of the consequences of the scientific mode of knowing is that it ultimately arrives at a meaningless, mechanical universe. This is why the astrophysicist Steven Weinberg can say that “the more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.” He is not alone in thinking this. With the rise of science and the decline of religion, the idea that there is any meaning to existence also declined. Science did not set out to arrive at a meaningless universe, but it was driven to do so by the force of its own logic. If the only “really real” things are the sorts of things that are amenable to measurement – basically, physical bits and pieces - then things like “meaning” or “purpose” and other “spiritual” kinds of things are not really real. And if the universe is pointless, then human existence must be too. There is no reason for our existence. Like everything else, we just happened.
This is pretty much what the accepted picture is in the modern world. For the past few centuries we’ve slowly become accustomed to the idea that life is ultimately meaningless. Science presents one version of this insight, and much of the literature and art and philosophy of modern times does too. A great deal of this sentiment is summed up in the existential philosopher Jean-Paul-Sartre’s remark, “man is a useless passion.” “It is meaningless that we live,” Sartre said, “and it is meaningless that we die.” Martin Heidegger says we are “thrown into existence.” Albert Camus talks of the “absurd.” These thinkers from the last century were at least troubled by these reflections and sought to arrive at some stoic endurance of fate, some meaningful response to meaninglessness. But today, in the postmodern world, we’re not fussed. Life’s meaningless? Okay. We’re lost in the cosmos? No biggie. We’ve been there and done that and got the tee-shirt. We have accepted as a given what the writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called “the fallacy of insignificance,” the unquestioned belief that each of us individually and humanity in general is of no significance whatsoever.
The problem with this is that such a bland acceptance leads to a cynical, shallow view of life. It reduces it to a bad joke. It makes it small, trivial, and shrinks everything to an anonymous, uniform, “whatever.” I don’t think it takes a great deal of observation to see that we have become addicted to trivia and are up to our ears in methods and techniques of distraction. We have become used to nihilism, to the idea that “nothing matters.” In many ways we like it, because it lets us off the hook. We no longer have to think about serious things or take ourselves seriously. And in a world in which there are no “spiritual” values, the only thing worth pursuing is material gain. Needless to say there’s quite a lot of that going on. But even that can only go so far. My own feeling is that soon even it will be seen to be pointless. What we will do after that to entertain ourselves is unclear, but I shudder to consider the possibilities.
I would also say that our pressing ecological, environmental, economic, social and other crises have their roots, ultimately, in this “fallacy of insignificance” in the lack of belief in any values other than material ones.
Now this rather bleak spiritual landscape is a result, I believe, of our overvaluing one way of knowing at the expense of the other. It is a result of our understandable over-appreciation of the new way of knowing. And I should make clear that I am not saying the new way of knowing is bad, or evil, or that we should get rid of it and return to the older way. Developing the scientific way of knowing was a true breakthrough and a necessary and indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. But as I’ve tried to point out, it has its drawbacks. While a return to a pre-scientific time is neither possible nor desirable, what we can do is see if the rejected tradition can offer anything to even out the imbalance. Can we learn something from it to help us move through this rather uninspiring time? Can we salvage some of our “rejected knowledge” and see if it can inform us and help us make creative, positive decisions about ourselves and the world? Can we accept some of this knowledge so that it is no longer rejected?
Let’s take a look at it.
We’ve already seen that it sees the cosmos as living, even conscious, rather than as a dead, empty mechanism.
We’ve seen that it sees connections running throughout the elements of this cosmos, patterns, correspondences, analogies, sympathies, echoes, communication. Blake, a student of the Neo-Platonic tradition, wrote that “A robin redbreast in a cage puts all Nature in a rage.” There is the sense that everything is connected in some way with everything else, is in a way integrated. This would mean that the other mode of knowing sees the world as “dis-integrated,” as broken up, fragmented, as things jumbled up in a box rather than a whole.
It also recognizes realities that the other way of knowing does not. Invisible forces and energies, subtle influences, spirits and souls, but also values like beauty, truth, the good, the values that make up what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called the “higher reaches of human nature” and which we associate with a spiritual orientation to life, rather than a material one.
We have also seen that the other way of knowing enters into the world, rather than remaining detached from it. And this I think is the key thing to grasp. Because it is this through this kind of “participatory consciousness” that everything else follows. And it is something that we can experience for ourselves.
Probably the most difficult part of the rejected tradition that someone firmly convinced of the accuracy of the scientific picture of reality will have accepting, is its attitude toward consciousness. To put it simply, in the scientific, modern view, consciousness is a product of the material world. Whether it is neurons, electrochemical exchanges, or elementary particles, in some way consciousness is explained via some physical agent, and it is something that takes place exclusively inside our heads. I address this belief – for this is what it is – in my book A Secret History of Consciousness, where I look at several philosophies of consciousness which take a very different view. This other view is the polar opposite of the scientific one. In this view, consciousness is primary, and the physical world, the world “out there,” the world we are all inhabiting is in some way produced by consciousness. This means that you and I, right here and now, are in some way creating the world around us, are responsible for it. This is why the nineteenth century French Hermetic philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said that we should not explain man by the world, as material science tries to do, but the world by man, as the Hermetic, esoteric tradition does. This is also what is meant by the Hermetic belief that man, the human being, contains an entire universe within him, is a microcosm. Within his mind, his spirit, there are infinite worlds. The world we see here and now is only one of them. If you change consciousness, you change the world.
Perhaps you can see why at the beginning I asked you to perform an act of “bracketing.” Everything we have been taught throughout our lives has in one way or another told us the complete opposite of what I just said. We have grown up within what Husserl called “the natural standpoint.” I should point out that by “natural standpoint,” Husserl was not thinking of “nature,” or a “natural” way of living. He simply meant the accepted, the usual, the ordinary, the everyday, the unquestioned. When we open our eyes in the morning we see a world “out there” and we assume quite naturally that all our perception is doing is reflecting it, as a mirror would. We, ourselves, our consciousness, has nothing to do with forming or shaping or providing that world. It is “there” and we simply “see” it. Husserl believed that the first step in philosophy, in understanding ourselves and in achieving self-knowledge is to challenge this. He believed we needed to step out of the “natural standpoint,” which in effect means to make the world strange. Not by distorting it as, say, surrealism does, or altering it as, say, what happens when we ingest a mind-altering substance, or seeing it as threatening, as happens in certain abnormal mental states. But simply by withholding assent to what we have hitherto never questioned, by bracketing what we “know” about the world and trying to see it from a different perspective. This is the “resolute pursuit of the obvious” which leads, if done correctly, to “radical astonishment.” The most obvious thing in the world is the world itself and it is also obvious that we are just a part of it, like everything else. Husserl and, in its own way, the Western Inner Tradition, asks us to put this belief aside and to try to see things differently.
I should point out that Husserl was not a devotee of this tradition. He was a genuine Herr Professor working all his life in the academy on questions of logic, mathematics, and epistemology. What is fascinating to me is that the sort of shift in our focus of consciousness that he asks for is in many ways the same as required in the Hermetic, inner tradition. Both ask us to put aside certain habits of thought, for this is all that the “natural standpoint” and the most rigorous expression of it, the modern, scientific mode of knowing, are. They are ways of perceiving, of knowing, and of thinking that have been built up, arrived at, over time. This is not to devalue them in any way, merely to show that they have evolved. They are not simply “given” as natural. This suggests that other ways of perceiving, knowing, and thinking can also evolve. And this is where we come in.
One of the first effects of “making the world strange” in the way that Husserl suggests is that it makes “you” strange too. The consciousness that has stepped out of the “natural standpoint” and taken an active stance toward “the world” rather than a passive acceptance of it, becomes aware of itself in a way that it never does when remaining in the “natural standpoint.” It becomes aware of itself as an activity, as a source of action. It feels more lively, more alive, more present, and becomes aware that what it had believed up till then to be absolute fact may not be as absolute as it had thought. Most important, it becomes aware of itself as a willed activity. Not wilful, in the egotistic sense – along with everything else, the everyday self that is associated with “wilfulness” is bracketed too – but in the sense of feeling its own “participation” in the “world” – it, after all, is doing the bracketing. Up till then it had simply accepted “the world” as something “there,” with which it had nothing to do aside from passively reflecting it. It becomes more aware of “I” as a living, vital, experience. It understands what Buckminster Fuller said when he remarked that “I seem to be a verb.” It overcomes its “forgetfulness of being,” in Heidegger’s phrase, and “remembers itself” as the esoteric teacher Gurdjieff believed we all needed to do. (In light of what we said about a “dis-integrated” consciousness, “re-membering” seems particularly apt.)
There are moments when we already feel this kind of “participation,” although we mostly are not explicitly aware of it and don’t speak of it in this way. But the effect of great art, poetry, music, literature, natural beauty, love, religious and spiritual practices all tend toward making us more aware of our inner life. They widen us, expand our interior, give us glimpses of that inner universe the rejected tradition tells us resides within us all. They are the “peak experiences” that Maslow believed came to all psychologically healthy people, and what he meant by “psychologically healthy people,” were people who rejected the “fallacy of insignificance” and who strove to actualize the “higher reaches” of their nature, the aspects of human being that are the central concern of our rejected tradition. And I should point out that as we actualise these “higher reaches,” the world around us is actualized too. We no longer see it as something solely to exploit or to abuse, as a dead, oblivious, mechanism, but as something living with which we can develop a relation. We develop an attitude of care toward it, we become, as the title of one of my books has it, “caretakers of the cosmos,” rather than insignificant accidents produced randomly within it.
And just as our present consciousness has evolved out of earlier forms, a new consciousness, more aware of the kind of knowledge and knowing that informs our rejected tradition, can also evolve. I am of the opinion that this is happening already and has been happening for some time and that we, now, are in a very good position to help it along. We are the inheritors of both traditions, both kinds of knowing, and we can see where and how the two need to be balanced and integrated. This is precisely the theme of my latest book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World, a historical-evolutionary overview of the place of the rejected tradition within western culture. It is my sincere hope that our other tradition no longer remains rejected and that its teachers and what they have to teach remains a secret no longer.
Revolutionaries of the Soul (Quest 2014) is a collection of my essays and articles over the last twenty years or so, taken from Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and other journals. The essays amount to potted biographies of many esoteric greats, from Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, to C.G. Jung and Dion Fortune. There are also pieces on Manly P. Hall, the brilliant historian of the occult James Webb, and the late Colin Wilson, as well as many others. The unintended result amounts to a brief history of modern esotericism - but I imagine I should leave that to the reader to decide. Here is an excerpt from my piece on Julius Evola, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in occult philosophy. I hope you enjoy it.
Julius Evola: Mussolini’s Mystic
In the late spring of 1980, Italians felt the return of a terrorist threat that for the previous decade had kept a low profile. Since the end of World War II and the rise of the cold war, neo-fascism had been a fact of life in Italian politics, the right-wing ideals of “tradition” and “order” seeming the only alternative to American domination or the threat of communism. In December 1969, the destabilizing tactics employed by the neo-fascists reached a new height with the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, a violent spark that ignited a wave of far-right terrorism. By the mid-1970s, however, the neo-fascist threat appeared to have faded, only to be replaced by its left-wing opposite when radical groups took to shattering university professors’ kneecaps for teaching the doctrines of “the establishment.” Their counterparts, however, were merely lying low, and on May 28, 1980, it was clear that they were back and ready for action. On that day, an Italian policeman Franco Evangelista – nicknamed “Serpico” after the legendary New York cop, for his success in arresting drug dealers – was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in Rome. Then, in June, a judge who had led an investigation into right-wing terrorist activities was murdered. But the major attack came last, on August 2, when a bomb in the Bologna railway station killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. Many of the victims, including children, were maimed horribly. Like the Omagh bombing and 9/11, the event punched a hole in the nation’s psyche – which was precisely what its authors intended.
Keeping to its “strategy of tension,” the group responsible for the blast kept its identity secret, yet the police had a good idea who to look for. Names were mentioned: Paolo Signorelli, Franco Frela, Claudio Mutti, Stefano delle Chiaie and others from the right-wing “usual suspects” list were questioned. And, when the investigation began to close in, several members of the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, an influential far-right group, fled the country for Britain. One man, however, whose name was mentioned by all, had no need to fear the police, as he had been dead for the last six years. But if a single person could be held accountable for the Bologna bombing, the dead man was a good candidate. His name was Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola, better known to his more recent English speaking readers as Baron Julius Evola, author of several books on magic, esotericism and the occult, as well as a withering attack of Western civilization, Revolt Against the Modern World (1934).
Born on May 19 1898 to a noble Sicilian family, Julius Evola was a bright but self-willed child who early on rebelled against his strict Catholic upbringing. This resentment against Christianity remained with him throughout his life, and fuelled a Nietzschean disdain for the “weak” and ignorant masses. Although he left university before earning a degree, a sense of precision and objectivity, a cold clarity and logic, came from his studies in industrial engineering. But it was the new movements in modern literature that had the most influence on Evola’s early years. In later life he was to become a staunch defender of tradition, but in his teens Evola came under the spell of the literary avant-garde, absorbing the work of writers like Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini. Papini introduced him to new ideas in art and fashion, as well as to the writings of Meister Eckhart and several Oriental sages. But the most influential discovery was the work of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose Futurist movement would later find favor with Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, a position Evola himself would occupy in years to come. Marinetti, who sang the praises of the modernity Evola would eventually come to despise, may seem an unlikely mentor for a philosopher whose polemics against the modern world would later guide several violent attacks on it. Yet Marinetti’s own fascistic sensibility – a virulent rejection of nature, a celebration of regimen and machine-like efficiency, and above all an embrace of speed and violence for their own sake – are in keeping with Evola’s character.
Marinetti’s Futurists scandalized the bourgeoisie with their penchant for avant-garde hooliganism and artistic thuggery, starting fights at art galleries, and shouting abuse at poetry readings, tactics that less cultured individuals would later employ against a variety of human targets. War, for Marinetti, was an aesthetic affair, and his reports from the Turkish front in World War I spoke of the “joy” of hearing “the machine guns screaming a breathelessness under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tum…” These and other brutal onomatopoeia informed Marinetti’s ideas of parole in libertia, “free words”, which later formed the basis of much of today’s rap and “performance poetry”.
At 19, Evola had an opportunity to test Marinetti’s theory when he joined the Italian army in the last days of the war. Although serving as an artillery officer at the Austrian front, Evola saw no action, yet the discipline, order and hierarchy of the military impressed him and left him unsuited for civilian life, with its muddling chaos and growing egalitarianism. It was then that he began his search for “transcendence”, first through drugs, then through a study of the occult.
These experiences seemed only to increase Evola’s sense of purposelessness and the idea of suicide came to dominate his consciousness, a morbid opinion made attractive through his interest in the brilliant but disturbed Austrian writer Otto Weininger. The Jewish Weininger wrote an influential book, Sex and Character (1903), in which he argued that man alone is a spiritual creature, yearning for the celestial heights, while woman, a denizen of the Earth, tries to trap him in her corrupting embrace: the archetype of the femme fatale. He also argued that the Jews as a race displayed distinctly “feminine” characteristics, most importantly a hatred of all things of a “higher” nature: hence Marx and his reduction of religion to the “opium fo the people.” An unhappy individual, obsessed with sex and his own Jewishness, Weininger committed suicide at 23, in a room in Vienna once occupied by Beethoven. His ideas about women and Jews, however, lived on in several minds, not the least of which was Evola’s.
A Buddhist text saved Evola from suicide, and the discovery of a new avant-garde movement gave him a sense of direction. Futurism, he came to believe, was vulgar and showy. But Dada, the new anti-art movement seeping across the border from Switzerland, struck him as more intellectual, as well as more ambitious. Dada seemed more than a mere art movement, something along the lines of a total reconstruction of the world, the need for which Evola had come to believe in passionately. It is also quite possible that in Dada’s leader, Tristan Tzara, Evola found a new role model: photographs of Evola displaying his elegant, smooth shave face, immaculate dress and imperious gaze – complete with monocle – are strikingly similar to Tzara. For the later advocate of tradition this is ironic, as Tzara, with his hunger for notoriety and scandal, would today more than likely be more at home on talk shows and Twitter, than in the workshops of anti-art.
Evola plunged into Dada, reading his poetry to the music of Schönberg, Satie and Bartok at the Cabaret Grotte dell’Augusteo, Rome’s version of Zürich’s infamous Cabaret Voltaire. He also took up painting, and exhibited his work in Rome, Milan, Lausanne and Berlin; today his “Inner Landscape at 10:30 am” still hangs in Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Evola also wrote an influential essay on abstract art, arguing that it is only in abstraction that the existence of an “eternal self” could be expressed – an indication, again, of his anti-natural, anti-earthly bias.
Yet Dada was not enough. Disgusted with the increasing commercialization of the avant-garde, in 1922 Evola abandoned painting and poetry. He now gave himself to philosophy, writing several books of an idealistic character in which he spelled out the metaphysics of the “absolute individual.” This boiled down to the doctrine that such an individual enjoyed “the ability to be unconditionally whatever he wants,” and that for him “the world is my representation.” For the nobly born Evola, this spiritual solipsism seems appropriate: it provided an ontological underpinning for his near-absolute lack of interest in other people.
This focus on the “unconditional” freedom of the self led to a still deeper study of occultism. Evola became involved with an Italian theosophical group, and wrote an introduction to a translation of the Tao Te Ching. A correspondence with Sir John Woodroffe – as Arthur Avalon, author of several works on Hindu philosophy – led to a fascination with Tantra, which surfaced in Evola’s books The Yoga of Power (1949) and The Metaphysics of Sex (1958) – this last also shows the influence of Weininger. Evola soon lost interest in theosophy, but not in the occult, and by the mid-1920s he had become involved in an esoteric society, the UR group, who looked at magic as “the science of the ego.” Formed around the occultist Arturo Reghini, editor of two influential occult journals, Atanòr and Ignis , the UR group embarked on a variety of esoteric investigations. Along with Tantra, Evola studied alchemy, Taoism and Buddhism. The link between these studies was the idea of “initiation”, the sense that through them Evola was participating in ancient initiatory practices, living manifestations of a lost, primal tradition.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and The Wickedest Man in the World (Tarcher/Penguin). In it I ask why Crowley became a rock and roll mainstay, unlike Jung, Madame Blavatsky, and other esoteric figures embraced by the 1960s counter culture, and what his philosophy of "do what thou wilt" can mean for us today. Here's the opening to Chapter One, "The Unforgivable Sin."
In recent years visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery may have wondered about a painting that was added to its collection in 2003. There amid portraits of Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Fredrick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ernest Shackleton, Ernest Rutherford, and other important British figures is a striking canvas whose bright colors and unusual subject jump out at the viewer. The portrait shows its subject in a yogic pose, the fingers of both hands curled in a chin mudra, a meditative gesture designed to aid in pranayama, a breathing technique to gather the vital force, or prana, in the body. A bright red robe drapes over the figure, his dark hair and eyebrows contrasting strongly with the golden- yellow backdrop, and a single black forelock offers a faint suggestion of a horn. Not much is known about the artist, Leon Engers Kennedy, but like his subject he was interested in mysticism, magic, and the stranger side of life. The portrait was done in New York in 1917, during the subject’s difficult years in America, and a look at the biographical note tells us that he was a writer, mountaineer, and occultist. He also had a taste for adopting names, at different times calling himself the Master Therion, the Great Beast 666, and Baphomet.
The portrait is of Aleister Crowley although the curators, no doubt sticklers for accuracy, have him down as “Edward Alexander (‘Aleister’) Crowley,” a name that on some occasions, usually legal ones, he did in fact use. When I visited the gallery not too long ago for the first time in some years and came upon Crowley’s image, the same one used as the frontispiece for Vol. III No. I of his magical magazine The Equinox (the “blue Equinox” as it is called), I was surprised that it was there, and at first couldn’t believe it. The National Portrait Gallery was established in 1856 with the idea of collecting portraits of “famous British men and women.” But surely Crowley wasn’t just famous. He was infamous. A black magician, drug addict, sexual pervert, traitor, and all-around troublemaker— Crowley famous? That the curators of a gallery designed to house Britain’s best and brightest should include the “wickedest man in the world” struck me as odd, almost aberrant. It was as if they had discovered a portrait of Jack the Ripper and decided to hang that, too.
Crowley was no Ripper, although there is more than a little suspicion that he was responsible for some deaths, and Crowley himself went out of his way to suggest this. Yet during the height of Crowley’s infamy, in the 1920s and ’30s, the idea that his portrait could hang in the same room as the painter Roger Fry, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, and the biologist Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous Huxley) as an example of a famous Briton would have been unthinkable. He was indeed “a Man We’d Like to Hang,” as an article in the newspaper John Bull, which had a peculiar hatred of Crowley, called him, but certainly not in that way. More likely Crowley’s portrait would have found a place on Scotland Yard’s “most wanted” list, if John Bull and the other scandal sheets that “exposed” his exploits had it their way. Nevertheless, I had to chuckle. Although Crowley did practically everything he could to disgust and infuriate the British society he loathed with an often tedious obstinacy, he also always wanted its acceptance, and to be taken for what he never quite was: an English gentleman. I wondered, assuming he still existed in some sentient form in the cosmos— he was a great believer in reincarnation and claimed quite a few prestigious names for his past lives— musn’t he must be chuckling too, seeing that he had finally been accepted into the club that for the longest time wouldn’t have him as a member?
If we have any doubt that the Great Beast is finding a new place for himself in British history, we have only to look at the 2002 BBC Poll of the Top 100 Britons. Crowley came in at number 73, beating out J.R .R . Tolkien, Johnny Rotten, Chaucer, and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. Crowley is in danger of becoming just another English eccentric, which is how the British public usually neutralizes some challenge to its complacency. When I mentioned this to a friend, he added that the next step is to be deemed a national treasure. With Crowley’s image hanging among the portraits of many other national treasures, it looks like he is indeed on his way.
That Crowley was an egotist and mistreated the people in his life - was, indeed, wicked - are not the most important aspects of his career. Other less interesting characters have done the same without having Crowley’s flashes of genius, although, to be sure, Crowley’s ignominy was considerable. Yet for all his inexcusable behavior, Crowley was not “evil,” in the sense that, say, Sherlock Holmes’ adversary, Professor Moriarity was, or the black magicians of the many occult horror films that Crowley inspired were. Crowley was not evil, only insensitive, selfish, and driven by a hunger he seemed unable to satisfy and an incorrigible need to be distracted. He seems an embodiment of the religious thinker Blaise Pascal’s remark that “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” Crowley never sat still in a room, or anywhere else. One of the most telling remarks Crowley ever made was in a letter he wrote in 1905 to his then friend and soon to be brother-in-law, the artist Gerald Kelly. In the midst of a complaint about wasting the last five years of his life on “weakness, miscalled politeness, tact, discretion, care for the feeling of others”—a mistake he would not make again— and a rejection of Christianity, Rationalism, Buddhism, and “all the lumber of the centuries,” Crowley speaks of a “positive and primeval fact, Magic”—he had not yet added the k—with which he will build “a new Heaven and a new Earth.” “I want none of your faint approval or faint dispraise,” he told Kelly. “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong.” Crowley needed “strong” things. Nothing could touch him unless it was “strong.” Crowley had to have a lot of sex and it had to be wild; the women he had it with had to be seething with “forbidden lust” of the kind associated with the Marquis de Sade or the poet Baudelaire, and the men he had it with had to humiliate him and bend him to their will. He had to have a lot of drugs; famously, by the end of his life he was taking enough heroin to kill a room full of nonusers. He had to have a lot of drink; he was known to hold an eye- watering amount of liquor. And he had to have a lot of experiences. Crowley’s life was one long hunt for “experiences.” As his biographer and critic John Symonds remarked, Crowley “needed some strong or horrific experience to get ‘turned on’.” Most people, as Symonds remarks, are “turned on”— become interested in something— by sitting at home, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a film. That is, most people embody some form of Pascal’s “sitting still in a room.” Crowley’s need for constant “strong” stimulation suggests that he lacked imagination and that his mind, formidable as it was, was curiously literal. Crowley seems, I think, to have suffered from a kind of autism. I don’t necessarily mean in some pathological sense, but he seemed to lack the kind of nuanced, “tacit knowing” that most of us enjoy and which allows us to grasp the essence or meaning of some idea or experience, without having to go to extremes or into precise detail in order to “get it.” Crowley only got it by going to extremes. In fact, as his friend Louis Wilkinson, who shared with Crowley some of his worst traits, remarked, Crowley’s “cult, his mania, one might say, was for excess in all directions.” Crowley was not evil, but his need for excess, for “strong” things, more times than not, was a source of suffering for those around him.
It may be this characteristic that leads some of Crowley’s recent biographers to remark that his credo of “Do what thou wilt,” “so redolent, seemingly, of license and anarchy, dark deeds and darker dreams, terrifies on first impact, as does Crowley the man,” and that one must feel “terror, a sense of evil, creepiness or disgust” at the mention of his name. This seems a bit extreme itself. With the possible exception of some fundamentalist Christians, I can’t think of anyone who is afraid of Crowley anymore, let alone terrified, or who is so conventional or repressed that they will “experience visceral disgust at the thought of sexual emissions as sacred components of worship,” as Crowley and those who practice his sex-magick thought of them. We live in an “anything goes” society, whose central maxim, “Just Do It,” has been embraced by some contemporary Crowleyans. A great deal of what Crowley got up to is today par for the course, and the extreme behavior he indulged in is, more or less, commonplace. But the important question is: does one have to be frightened of thelema, the name of Crowley’s religion of excess, in order to question it? It strikes me that in order to portray Crowley as some liberator of an uptight mankind— as some of his champions do— our “fear” of the shocking truths he was sent to reveal must be puffed up, and a kind of straw Mr. Conventional must be erected, who trembles at the thought of anyone doing their “true will.” Such imaginary Mrs. Grundys are in fact necessary for a philosophy of “transgression.” They are the windmills against which such radical behavior tilts. It needs them to rebel against; without them, it collapses, its “acts of liberation” deflating to mere personal predilections, its “transgressions” indicating little more than that the people engaging in them have a taste for such things. But no such persons exist, only people who wonder if the kind of life Crowley led is really worth living. I have never been afraid of my or anyone else’s “true will,” and I have lived in both the magical and rock and roll milieus that provide fertile soil for those who are pursuing theirs. This is why I can be critical of Crowley and the liberationist philosophy he embodied— thelema is only one expression of it; it is not a distinctive new creed—and not be dismissed as someone terrified of it. I have been there, done it, and seen it from the inside. I am not a thelemaphobe, to coin a word. I merely find it wrongheaded.
But “excess in all directions?” Sounds like a good album title. No wonder Crowley found a place in rock and roll.
The Forest is Everywhere
“It is essential to know that every man is immortal and that there is eternal life in him, an unexplored yet inhabited land, which, though he himself may deny its existence, no timely power can ever take from him.” Ernst Jünger
The German conservative writer Ernst Jünger is often mistakenly tarred with the same brush as the Nazis, so let me start this review with some reconstruction work. Jünger was never a member of the NSDAP and he twice turned down a seat in the Reichstag. He was courted by Himmler and Goebbels but snubbed both and declined an invitation to join the Deutsche Akademie der Dichtung – the German Writer’s Academy – which was led briefly by Jünger’s equally nationalistic but less fastidious colleague Gottfried Benn. (Early on Benn, another conservative, broke bread with the Nazis but was soon disgusted.) He was a WWI hero – Jünger was wounded fourteen times in the trenches and was the youngest recipient of the pour le Mérite - and unfortunately it is his Dionysian appreciation of the perils of battle – vividly described in his first book Storm of Steel - that informs most English speaking opinions of him today. I say 'informs' but this is a misnomer, as most English readers and critics avoid him because of his unwarranted bad reputation, and so are hardly informed. Yet Jünger was something more than a celebrant of Heraclitus’ dictum that ‘war is the father of all things.’ His allegorical poetic novel On The Marble Cliffs was a thinly veiled and beautifully written critique of totalitarianism in general and the Nazis in particular, but Jünger was so prestigious a national hero that they couldn't ban it. Eventually, he did fall foul of the Reich; he was a conservative thinker who considered Hitler and Co. political thugs and his very visible refusal to collaborate with them was as pointed a criticism as he could make and still survive. He was suspected of involvement in the July 20 1944 attempt on Hitler's life – he was actually on the fringes of it - and one of his sons was imprisoned for 'subversive conversations' regarding the Fuehrer and died soon after. Jünger was a nationalist writer who loved Germany but hated the Nazis and would have nothing to do with them, just as one could, say, love America during the Bush years but have nothing to do with the Neocons. But because in his early career he extolled the virtues of traditional battle - questionable virtues indeed, but he was not alone in this (Homer, anyone?) - his stock among English readers remains low. This is unfortunate. Jünger is one of the most stimulating (and long lived: he died in 1998 at 102) poetic thinkers of the last century, anticipating a number of themes common to our times: altered states, surveillance societies, the unchecked rise of technology and diminishment of nature, and the need to preserve individual freedom in an increasingly mechanized and managed global world.
The quotation above is from The Forest Passage, Jünger's post-WWII essay on how to maintain inner freedom in a society increasingly bent on instituting conformity. First published in 1951, it was aimed at Germany’s recent Nazi past, its possible Soviet future, and the cultural leveling and consumer consciousness sadly associated with western democracies. Its first English translation (by Thomas Friese) is published by the Telos Press, who should be applauded for making more of Jünger available to English readers; their previous efforts include Jünger’s Nietzschean essay On Pain and the unclassifiable The Adventurous Heart, a collection of short prose pieces on a wide variety of subjects, displaying Jünger’s enviable ability to ‘read’ the surfaces of things in order to extract their inner meaning. (My review of it can be found here: http://realitysandwich.com/165435/rs_review_2/)
Like many in the post-war years, Jünger was concerned with the rising anonymity and pervasiveness of the State and it is against its seemingly unstoppable encroachment into our personal lives that The Forest Passage is aimed. The ‘unexplored yet inhabited land’ that lies within us is Jünger’s ‘forest’, an inner (yet sometimes outer) ‘temporary autonomous zone’ ( in Peter Lamborn Wilson’s phrase) that one can enter, provided one has the courage, determination, and will to take on the challenges of being an ‘internal exile’. Readers of Jünger will know that the figure of the ‘forest rebel’ is a kind of prototype of Jünger’s more realized character of the ‘anarch’, the central theme of his late novel Eumeswil. Jünger’s ‘anarch’, however, is not the same as an anarchist. The anarchist needs society, if only as something to tear down, while the anarch seeks a way to maintain his or her freedom within it, while avoiding its dehumanizing effects. The anarch’s resistance can be invisible, unlike the anarchist’s, and his ‘state’ is the one that lies within him, not the one in which he is forced to live. In a way, The Forest Passage aims at providing the reader with a guide to preserving his or her ‘self’ while subjected to the unavoidable pressures of modern government, much as Jünger’s more belligerent and cantankerous English contemporary Wyndham Lewis did in his early work The Art of Being Ruled. (Lewis too served in WWI and his account of his experience – very different from Jünger’s - can be found in his memoir Blasting and Bombardiering.)
“To have a destiny, or to be classified as a number – this decision is forced upon all of us today,” Jünger tells us, “and each of us must face it alone.” This may smack of idealistic elitism yet Jünger is not selling us reserved seats in an ivory tower. As a captain during the occupation of Paris, Jünger knew too well the results of political violence – he risked his own safety more than once by helping some escape it – and he informs his readers that “we cannot limit ourselves to knowing what is good and true on the top floors while fellow human beings are being flayed alive in the cellar.” (Readers of On the Marble Cliffs will recall that ‘flaying’ is the Head Ranger’s chief means of torture.) Nor does Jünger shy from offering images of very visceral resistance, remarking that in olden times the ‘inviolability of the home’ was ensured by the ‘family father who, sons at his sides, fills the doorway with an axe in his hand.” Yet such muscular defense may be less appropriate to our own time, and can too easily be used to support undesirable aims, such as the ‘right’ to bear arms, even if, as Jünger surmises, one such ‘father’ per street in Berlin circa 1933 would have led to a very different result.
More relevant for us, I believe, is Jünger’s emphasis on the encounter with the self, that is at the heart of the ‘forest passage’. Against the forest, that symbol of ‘supra-temporal being’, whose teaching is ‘as ancient as human history’, Jünger posits ‘the Titanic’, a symbol of technological might heading for disaster. Although many today take the idea of a ‘forest passage’ literally, and in different ways, try to be ‘off the grid’ and ‘self-sufficient’, that option is not open to all. Can we, Jünger asks, remain on board our careering ocean liner, and retain our autonomy, by strengthening our roots in the ‘primal ground’ of Being which we find by discovering our self? The means Jünger suggests for achieving this are myth, religion, the imagination, intuition, and even esotericism; Jünger has a surprisingly early mention of Gurdjieff. All of these are ways of contacting and drawing on the deep, primal forces that lie within us and which our increasingly standardized existence seeks to obscure. It is only through our ‘victory over fear’ – engendered by daily doses of ‘the news’ - that the threat of catastrophe diminishes, and we best achieve this by entering the forest’s path and following it to its end. It is then that we can determine whether freedom is more important to us than mere existence, can decide whether how we are is more important than that we are. As Jünger writes ‘the edge of the abyss is a good place to seek your own counsel’ – he is nothing if not quotable – and these days its seems the abyss is everywhere. But, as Jünger tells us, so is the forest, that ‘harbour’ and ‘homeland’ we all carry within us. Read this book. By entering the forest we may yet find our way out of the woods.
The Forest Passage
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (Floris 2013). Its central theme is that humans - we - have a unique and indispensable responsibility to existence: that of saving it from meaninglessness. In this section, through the work of the biologist Jacques Monod, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray, I look at some arguments against our having any reason to exist at all.
Give Life a Chance
According to the latest estimates, our earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, roughly ten billion years after the Big Bang, from cosmic dust and gas left over from the sun’s formation. It is believed life appeared on earth within a billion years after our planet formed. The standard account of the ‘birth of life’ suggests that self-replicating molecules accidentally emerged from the primordial soup some 3.5 billion years ago, and through an equally accidental process, over millions of years eventually turned into myself writing these words and you reading them – with, of course, quite a few different organisms in between. As with the Big Bang, the emergence of life is another example of the ‘something from nothing for no reason’ scenario popular with many scientists today. According to the same scenario, the consciousness I am exhibiting in writing these words – humble, indeed – and which you are employing in reading them, also emerged purely through accident, as an epiphenomenon of purely physical interactions of our brains’ neurons, which are themselves the result of the purely mechanical process of evolution, the Darwinian version. (An epiphenomenon is a kind of side show to the main attraction. Steam is an epiphenomenon of boiling water; it has no existence in itself, and without the boiling water, there would be no steam. For many neuroscientists and philosophers of mind today, our consciousness is little more than a kind of steam given off by the brain.)
To dot the i’s and cross the t’s on this, let me say it in the simplest way possible. According to the most commonly accepted scientific view, no one wanted the Big Bang to happen. No one wanted the earth to form. No one wanted life to appear on the earth. And no one wanted life to evolve into us. There is no reason for any of it. It just happened.
This is a conclusion that the French Nobel Prize winning scientist Jacques Monod (1910- 1976), one of the fathers of molecular biology, put perhaps more eloquently. Monod writes that
Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised…The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.
From this insight, which is radically opposed to any kind of ‘anthropic principle’, Monod developed a rather bleak picture of our position in the world. ‘Man’, he tells us, ‘at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose’.
Although his countryman Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the most well- known existentialist, had a low opinion of science – according to his lover Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre ‘flatly refused to believe in science’ and believed that ‘microbes and other animalculae invisible to the naked eye didn’t exist’ - he nevertheless agreed with Monod on at least this proposition. For Sartre, man has existence, but no essence (‘his destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty’), and is ultimately a ‘useless passion’. Like Monod, Sartre believes that we must face this grim situation stoically and make the best of it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Suffice it to say, neither Monod’s view nor Sartre’s is one that sits well with our being caretakers or repairmen of the cosmos.
Matters Dark and Meaningless
Aptly, one character who shares Monod’s gloomy vision of a chance-ridden universe and of ourselves as purposeless creatures within it, is the American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft was not a scientist (he was, though, a keen amateur astronomer) throughout his short life he professed an astringently materialist view of life and the cosmos. To a correspondent Lovecraft wrote:
I am an absolute sceptic and materialist, and regard the universe as a wholly purposeless and essentially temporary incident in the ceaseless and boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules which constitute the blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity. Nothing really matters, and the only thing for a person to do is to take the artificial and traditional values he finds around him and pretend they are real; in order to retain that illusion of significance in life which gives to human events their apparent motivation and semblance of interest.
Note that for Lovecraft, we maintain our ‘illusion of significance’ by maintaining values that are ‘artificial’ and which we only ‘pretend’ to be real. For anyone who embraces the belief that pure ‘chance’ is responsible for our existence – and that includes quite a few of the most prestigious minds of our time - it logically follows that ‘nothing really matters’ as our actions can have absolutely no effect, one way or the other. It is difficult to see how values like love, freedom, truth, justice, beauty and others, that we hold give meaning to life, can have emerged from an existence accounted for by the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns’ of ‘electrons, atoms, and molecules’, a vision of things that goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. In such a world, ‘values’ can have only a ‘subjective’ and consensual existence, as ‘fictions’ we agree on maintaining, as the only ‘real’ things are purely physical, and, so far as we know, beauty, love, and other values are not made of atoms or molecules. If values are real, they exist in some non-physical kind of reality, of the kind Plato had in mind when he spoke of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Although the conclusion, that the values which give life meaning are really illusions, follows from the premise that chance is responsible for life and the universe, it rarely gets mentioned by the scientists who accept that premise.
Most of Lovecraft’s weird fiction (of which I am a great fan) was published in the ‘pulp’ horror magazines of the 1920s and 30s, of which Weird Tales is the best known. But while other Weird Tales writers, like Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) and Clark Ashton Smith, still have readers (I myself am occasionally one of them), Lovecraft’s frankly overwritten stories acquired a serious critical cachet denied his friends and colleagues. Perhaps understandably, this critical importance was first recognized in the 1950s by the French, who a century earlier had embraced Edgar Allan Poe, a major influence on Lovecraft, when he was ignored by his fellow Americans.21 Lovecraft’s acceptance by the French, I would argue, had something to do with the bleak vision his stories portray, which is in essence the same as that of Sartre’s grim philosophy and Monod’s biological lottery. It is this atmosphere of existential dread, of some dark and terrifying knowledge breaking into our consciousness, that gives Lovecraft’s tales a flavour as unmistakable as Kafka’s, and which he shares with Sartre, whose existentialism Lovecraft would no doubt have turned his nose up at. For both the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories and Sartre’s novels, knowledge is a trigger for a cosmic pessimism.
For Sartre this cosmic pessimism is the ‘nausea’ of his most famous work, his first novel Nausea (1938), which I first read as a teenager. The hero of this novel has come to the startling recognition that things exist. But their existence has nothing to do with him, or with the stories or ideas he tells or has about them. They exist aggressively, in their own right; the names and categories and meanings we usually use to understand them – tree, stone, cloud, star – are simply falsehoods we tell in order to keep their strangeness at bay. But now he knows, and the knowledge paralyzes him. At one point in the novel, Roquentin, the protagonist, looks at the root of a chestnut tree and is perplexed by it. ‘I no longer remembered that it was a root’ he tells us. Its existence frightens him. Like everyone else, he had taken existence for granted, and now it suddenly presses in upon him. It has lost its ‘harmless appearance as an abstract category’. It had become the very ‘paste’ of things, and he cannot get away from it. At another point in the novel he is about to open a door when he looks at the strange thing in his hand and has no idea what it is. It was the door knob. Sartre’s ‘nausea’ is not unlike states of mind associated with schizophrenia, when the connection between perception and feeling is unhinged. It is also suggestive that much of the inspiration for Nausea came from a bad mescaline trip Sartre had in 1936, in which he was attacked by devil fish and followed by an orang-utan, and in which umbrellas turned into vultures and shoes into skeletons.
The Misanthropic Cosmological Principle
Lovecraft’s protagonists are also discomfited by knowledge. But while for Sartre a root or a doorknob spells doom, Lovecraft’s dark insights are occasioned by more eccentric items. What knowledge means for Lovecraft can be best expressed by quoting the opening paragraph of his most famous story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, first published in Weird Tales in 1928. ‘The most merciful thing in the world’, Lovecraft writes:
…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but one day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The theme linking the stories making up Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, a literary mythology that Lovecraft’s fellow Weird Tales writers contributed to and to which contemporary writers still add today, is that in dim ages past, well before man appeared, the earth was inhabited by strange, monstrous creatures, The Great Old Ones, who were expelled from it but who ‘yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’ The Great Old Ones are terrifying indeed. Cthulhu him – or it – self is usually described as ‘blasphemous’, ‘eldritch’ , ‘loathsome’, or another string of evocative adjectives, and is usually depicted as a kind of winged, tentacled, squid-like monstrosity of enormous size, who resides in the lost city of R’lyeh, sunken beneath the South Pacific. But while the actual beings of the Cthulhu Mythos – Yog-Sothoth , Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, ‘the black goat of a thousand young’, and the rest – are disturbing indeed, what is truly frightening about Lovecraft’s cosmos is that these entities are not, as in traditional horror tales, supernatural, but merely products, like ourselves, of the chance work of accidental evolution in a ‘wholly purposeless’ universe. In our case, the ‘boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules’ that constitute the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity’ gave rise to us, and our ‘artificial values’ that allow us to live give us the false idea that, all in all, the cosmos is a relatively friendly and cosy place. But there we’re wrong. The same blind forces that gave rise to us – and to Beethoven, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, the Buddha, and Mother Theresa – also gave rise to these loathsome beings for whom we are negligible insects, when we are not mindless slaves or a tasty hors d’oeuvre. What is scary in the best of Lovecraft is this sense that we are ignorant of the truth about reality – like Sartre’s Roquentin – and if we only knew, we would be afraid.
Lovecraft called his philosophy ‘cosmicism’, by which he basically meant that if we truly grasped the size, age, and sheer strangeness of the universe – an idea of which I tried to present earlier in this chapter - we would recognize that human life can play no important part in it, and that we are only temporary residents on a planet whose previous occupants are planning to return. Possibly the earliest proponent of ‘cosmicism’, although he didn’t use the term, was H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose novel The War of the Worlds (1898) tells us that our world was ‘being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s’ – the Martians - ‘and yet as mortal as his own…minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic…’ When Lovecraft wrote ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, no one had yet thought of a Big Bang – the astronomer Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the idea, coined the phrase in 1949 - although Einstein’s relativity was seeping into popular consciousness and quantum theory was raising its head. One can imagine contemporary Lovecrafts having a field day with our current cosmologies. And we can say that if there is an ‘anthropic cosmological principle’ that suggests human life – or at least life like ours – is somehow necessary to the cosmos, Lovecraft’s ‘misanthropic principle’ suggests the exact opposite.
Of course not all fiction written from a ‘cosmic’ view is as dark as Lovecraft’s. His contemporary Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), for example, took a similar theme, yet didn’t use it to scare his readers. Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are vast, cosmic future histories, in which different races, species, planets, and galaxies, arise from and sink into the cosmic depths. But reading Stapledon produces a sense of wonder and exhilaration, not terror. To be fair to Lovecraft, in his last work he too begins to see that the awareness that it’s a big universe can lead to some insights more productive than the need to ‘flee’ into the safety of a ‘dark age’, as his story ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (1936) makes clear. Some of his other misanthropic views also seemed to have softened with time. Sadly, by this time, Lovecraft was dying, and the insight came too late for him to make much use of it.
It’s a Tough Cosmos Out There
Mention of a ‘misanthropic cosmological principle’ leads us to an insight into Lovecraft’s character. He was by all accounts an eccentric type, and for most of his life he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was born, doted on by two aunts and surrounded by the remnants of his childhood. A brief marriage and life in New York proved disastrous. The asexual Lovecraft was not cut out for married life, and the immigrant population of New York offended his prim sensibilities. Lovecraft always fantasised himself as an aristocratic English gentleman of the eighteenth century, and to share the streets and subways of Brooklyn with Jews, blacks, Italians, Spaniards, and who knows who else was an affront to him. This aristocratic self-image was associated with a sense of an intellectual, or at least a cultural and aesthetic superiority. Lovecraft loathed the modern world, and as one critic has pointed out, we can read his ghoulish stories as a full out assault on it. He knew that the values that make life meaningful for most of us were sheer illusions. He knew that our sense of being at home in the world was born of sheer ignorance. But unlike the ignorant fools who needed God or some other supernatural reality, and who believed that meaning and purpose were at work in the universe and not mere chance, he was tough enough to face this truth. He detested those fools who weren’t, and so he wrote stories of cosmic terror to scare them.
The idea that those who embrace chance as the sole force at play in existence are tough enough to do without the illusions the rest of us enjoy, is a theme that comes up again and again. Even Lovecraft himself was accused of not quite making the grade. Of one story, ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ (1931), his biographer, S.T. Joshi, remarks that in it, Lovecraft couldn’t ‘quite bring himself to admit that human penetration of the unknown gulfs of the cosmos is anything but an appalling aberration.’ Often those who reject meaning and purpose accuse those who look for it of wanting the world to be that way – who wouldn’t, they concede – but of not being strong (or honest, or hard, or brave, etc.) enough to face the truth. But it strikes me that the opposite can be just as true, although it rarely gets a mention: that those who embrace meaninglessness and chance want to be seen as tougher (or more intelligent, honest, brave, etc.) then those who ‘need’ meaning and purpose. Frequently the search for or expectation of meaning is seen as a weakness. Yet again, the opposite can be just as true. The embrace of meaninglessness can be an expression of a hunger for superiority, the need to feel more intelligent and strong than the rest of us fools, just as it can be seen as a form of misanthropy, of a dislike of human beings. Both motives seem to me to be at play in the work of John Gray, considered one of the most important social philosophers of our time.
Shades of Gray
As in the case of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements on how the universe began, I find myself perplexed as to why John Gray’s philosophy has acquired the aura of importance it has, at least for some readers. Prestigious names have sung his praises. For the late novelist J. G. Ballard, Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) was ‘the most exciting book since Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.’ James Lovelock of Gaia fame tells us that Gray ‘forces us to face the mirror and see ourselves as we are’. And for the critic Bryan Appleyard, whose opinion on other matters I’ve found cogent, Gray’s book was ‘unquestioningly one of the great works of our time’. Others have expressed similar appreciation. It may seem aberrant to fly in the face of such universal celebration, but as far as I can tell from reading Gray’s books, he is basically a misanthropic pessimist, whose pro-nature and pro-animal remarks express little more than an emotional dislike for human beings. This misanthropy is something we’ve already seen in Lovecraft and is obvious to anyone who reads Sartre, his championing of human freedom notwithstanding.
I say I am perplexed by the importance Gray is given, because his philosophy seems as grim as Schopenhauer’s, who also believed existence was meaningless, and expresses a ferocity toward human values reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. I would even go as far as to say that remarks similar to Gray’s anti-human rhetoric have been used in other contexts to justify murder, although I don’t believe Gray himself intended his own comments for that purpose. Yet Gray’s dislike of human beings leads me to suspect that he would not be too troubled if some of them quietly disappeared. Sadly, his animosity toward humans is predictably welcome because of our environmental concerns and guilty conscience about the planet. We have such a bad conscience about ourselves that one could say practically anything negative about human beings and be applauded for it as a deep thinker. Concern for the planet, however, can lead to some troubling places.
In Straw Dogs Gray remarks that from ‘Gaia’s’, or the earth’s, point of view ‘human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould’. When I wrote an article about Gray’s idea some years ago, I pointed out that a similar assessment of human importance was championed by Charles Manson, currently serving a life sentence for the murders of Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969.32 Of the many pseudo-philosophical remarks Manson made and which were taken seriously by otherwise intelligent people, one was that a scorpion’s life was more important than a human’s. While in prison, Manson had time to reflect on this insight, and to elaborate on its application. According to Manson, people and the ‘system’ were killing the planet. When Manson’s ‘Family’ killed Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant – as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, according to Charlie they ‘gave their lives’ and ‘took lives’ in order to ‘clean up ATWA…the whole life of the earth, in love and concern for brothers and sisters of soul’.
ATWA is Manson’s acronym for Air, Trees, Water, Animals (sometimes All The Way Alive), the name Manson gave to his radical ‘ecological movement’, shepherded by himself and two members of his Family, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good. It may seem unbelievable, but as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke points out, in recent decades Manson has been re-invented as an ‘eco-warrior’, and much of his rhetoric is eerily resonant with that of influential eco-groups such as Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, the Greens, and a good portion of New Age philosophy. The Earth First! founder Dave Foreman declared that ‘we are all animals’ and agreed with Manson that human life is of no particular importance. ‘An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear (indeed, some of us would argue that an individual Grizzly Bear is more important…).’ Although Gray would probably agree with this, I don’t believe he would go to the lengths Manson did to make his point. But some of Gray’s remarks make clear that being nature-oriented is not all sweetness and light. Whether we want to recognize it or not, there is a dark side to Gaia.
Gray’s central idea is that ‘humans think they are free conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals,’ a borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who, in his Genealogy of Morals (1887) said that ‘man is the sick animal’. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra called us the ‘cruellest animal’ as well, a sobriquet with which Gray would no doubt also concur.) Free will, morality, and other specifically human concerns are for Gray simply illusions, just as they are for H. P. Lovecraft and the neuroscientists who believe consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon. We are, for Gray, fundamentally a rapacious species, intent on eradicating other forms of life, and we should own up to this, and forget all the nonsense about being anything other. Rather than call ourselves homo sapiens Gray suggests homo rapiens. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and not all critics of this position are weak-kneed spiritual types. At the New Humanist website – where one finds ‘ideas for Godless people’ - Raymond Tallis, a secular humanist philosopher, takes Gray to task for arguing that we are nothing more than animals, a symptom of what Tallis calls ‘Darwinosis’. A similar sensibility informs the historian of science Kenan Malik’s book Man, Beast, and Zombie (2001). Yet both Tallis and Malik would, I suspect, be surprised to find themselves in the company of a spiritual thinker like the poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), who agrees with them and against Gray that ‘nowadays the term ‘human’ has been inverted to the point of signifying precisely what is least human in us, our bodily appetites…and all that belongs to natural man.’
All our problems, and those of the planet, according to Gray, stem from our misconceptions about ourselves, and from our inveterate fantasy about being able to ‘transcend’ the ‘human condition’, which, as far as I can tell, is for Gray of the ‘only human’ character spelled out in the Introduction. Gray apparently has no capacity to grasp human greatness, and any reference to it is merely the cue for some remark to cut us down to size. What Maslow’s ‘fully human’ would elicit from him I can only guess. ‘A glance at any human,’ he tells us, ‘should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being’. This remark would not be out of place in the writings of the Romanian arch-pessimist and one-time fascist enthusiast Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the titles of whose books – The Trouble with Being Born, A Short History of Decay, On The Heights of Despair – would not be incongruent with Gray’s own. ‘In every man sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world,’ ‘By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing,’ ‘So long as man is protected by madness, he functions, and flourishes’ – these are all taken at random from A Short History of Decay (1949). Cioran’s misanthropic reflections are on first glance effective, because their aphoristic style has a shock effect, like a sharp jab to the ribs. Prolonged reading, however, reveals their basic hollowness. The same, I think, can be said of Gray’s work. Cioran’s misanthropy and cynicism about human values paved his way to a profoundly anti-democratic political philosophy that had no qualms about eradicating undesirable human beings, like Jews. The flipside of not liking human beings is not always saving the planet.
What seems to raise Gray’s ire is the idea that we can in any way be ‘masters of our destiny’. In 1957, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), brother of Aldous Huxley, and one of the most important biologists of the twentieth century, said that the universe was ‘becoming conscious of itself…in a few of us human beings’, and that we had been appointed ‘managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution…’ He made these remarks in an essay entitled ‘Transhumanism’, in which he expressed his belief that ‘the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself.’ For Huxley this meant ‘man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature’, a sentiment with which I, and this book, are in accord – although Huxley’s term ‘transhumanism’ has been adopted by proponents of a ‘man-machine merger’ with which I am not in sympathy. Huxley even spoke of ‘the cosmic office’ to which we find ourselves ‘appointed’, a phrase with obvious similarity to the idea of ourselves being cosmic caretakers. Gray will have none of this and would, I suspect, greet any idea that we can direct our evolution with derisive scorn. Like Jacques Monod and Lovecraft, Gray sees little but chance at work in ourselves and the world. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of his chapter headed ‘The Human’ in Straw Dogs, Gray quotes Monod on mankind’s desperate efforts to deny its ‘contingency’, a favourite word of Sartre’s, which expresses, for Sartre at least, the fact that we are in no way essential to the world.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my my new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher/Penguin 2012). Blavatsky is a remarkable character, and one of my aims in writing the book was to get past all the myths and misconceptions about her, and re-introduce one of the most fascinating and important figures of the nineteenth century to readers, like myself, who thought they knew all about her. I was very happy to discover that in many ways, I didn't know her at all. Enjoy. Other excerpts can be found on my blog at Reality Sandwich and at the Tarcher/Penguin preview site.
I first came across a reference to Madame Blavatsky in 1975. I was living in New York, playing in a rock band, and had just become interested in magic, the paranormal, and what I later learned was called “esotericism,” and was busy reading my way through Colin Wilson’s The Occult. There, amidst accounts of Gurdjieff, Nostradamus, Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was Blavatsky. But although Wilson was convinced of her importance, there was an ambivalence about his account of her that was lacking in his analysis of Gurdjieff or Crowley. He was convinced that she “could not have held so many disciples entirely by means of confidence trickery” – she had, about mid-way through her career, been accused of fraud and the tag had stuck - but he also compared her to the 18th century Freemason, magician, and, by most mainstream accounts, charlatan Cagliostro, an identification Blavatsky herself would have approved of. She had “the same charisma, the same adventurousness, the same mixture of humour, roguery, and genuine psychic ability.” This uncertainty about Blavatsky must have stayed with Wilson. Years later, in a book called The Devil’s Party: A History of Charlatan Messiahs, she appears in the company of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and other doubtful characters, and Wilson remarks that “the question of how far Madame Blavatsky was a fraud must be left open.” She was “part genuine, part fraud,” but “unlike most messiahs, she never became paranoid, and always retained her sense of humor,” a trait sadly lacking in many spiritual teachers.
After reading The Occult, and practically every other book on magic I could get my hands on, I went on to study Gurdjieff, Crowley, and many of the other figures Wilson wrote about. But to be honest, I didn’t take Blavatsky that seriously, although “Theosophy” did turn up in a song of mine, written at the time. After all, what was one to make of the tales of mysterious Mahatmas in Tibet, of Blavatsky’s own travels there at a time when it was nearly impossible for a white European male, let only a woman, to enter that forbidden land, of letters, tea cups, and other items strangely “materializing” out of thin air, of stories about ancient Atlantis and Lemuria plucked from the mystical Akashic Record, not to mention the off-putting Theosophical jargon and jaw-breaking Tibetan terminology? I was gripped by Wilson’s account of the occult because he had linked it to philosophy, history, literature, and science, and Blavatsky’s Tibetan Masters and frankly improbable stories didn’t fit this frame. It also struck me that while, say, Gurdjieff had attracted several creative, well-accomplished individuals, who had already made a mark on society before they became his followers – the philosopher P.D. Ouspensky immediately comes to mind, as does the brilliant editor, A.R. Orage – there was something about the kind of people attracted to Theosophy that smacked of grandmothers’ shawls and tea cosies, of Sunday afternoon conversations about astral bodies and past lives, conducted with the same nonchalance with which one spoke about the weather. It was all very nice, harmless, and “spiritual,” but it lacked the hard edge that led Wilson to equate some of Gurdjieff’s ideas with existentialism. It wasn’t until some time later that I discovered with some surprise that both Ouspensky and Orage had started out as Theosophists.
And there were Blavatsky’s books, the huge, towering piles of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Their length alone didn’t deter me, but when I peeked into them, reading bits here and there, there was something about the avalanche of information falling from each page that made my curiosity dissolve. Blavatsky seemed incapable of simply stating her ideas. She had a hectoring, blustery style that didn’t want to convince the reader so much as to bowl him over. I came away from them feeling more bullied than enlightened, and I felt justified in avoiding more study when I read that Gurdjieff himself had complained of the time he had wasted on The Secret Doctrine.
So while I understood that it was Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society that had got the modern occult movement rolling, I felt I could give suitable deference to this, but save myself the trouble of really grappling with the “root races,” “planetary rounds,” “Manvantaras” and “Pralayas,” that jammed the pages of her gargantuan books.
Yet, as the years went by, and my studies grew, I discovered that many of the paths I traced led back to Blavatsky. It seemed clear that practically everyone I read about and later went on to write about owed something to her. Recognizing this, I finally found myself having to come to serious grips with a character and a body of ideas I had successfully avoided for some time.
There are, it seems to me, at least three different Madame Blavatskys, although I’m sure this is a conservative estimate; as her contemporary Walt Whitman said of himself, she contained “multitudes.” And Whitman, we know, was also untroubled by his contradictions. There is the “official,” “encyclopaedia” version Blavatsky, the colorful rogue and breezy bohemian, who pulled the wool over many intelligent eyes, but in the end was found out as a foul-mouthed, overweight, chain-smoking charlatan and fraud - although, as we will see, the “evidence” for this accusation is itself pretty questionable. Then there is the “pro-Blavatsky” version: the saintly, holy guru, steadfastly following her destiny, who fills the pages of more than one hagiography, and is embraced by her uncritical devotees, who believe that everything she said was the unalloyed truth, and who maintain the strict letter of her law against any deviation. These two separate camps carry on in their own way, having little if any communication with each other, aside from the obligatory brickbats they fling across the great divide between them. As you might imagine, neither of these Blavatskys is completely satisfying, and neither does her, or those interested but non-partisan readers who would like to know more about her, much good, although it has to be said that some of the critical accounts are quite entertaining and readable (HPB always provided excellent copy), while the hagiographic ones start out on a note of uplift and soon drift off into increasingly ethereal realms, quickly leaving the interested, but not entirely converted reader far behind.
Then there is the third Madame Blavatsky, the one I discovered as I investigated her life and times, a much more fascinating, exciting, surprising, and “real” character than I, and I suspect most people, thought, and one that deserves to be better known. What follows is my attempt at doing precisely that.
This review of Iain's McGilchrist's important book originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Yale University Press, November 2010. 544 pp.
For millennia it’s been known that the human brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right, yet exactly why has never been clear. What purpose this division served once seemed so obscure that the idea that one hemisphere was a “spare,” in case something went wrong with the other, was taken quite seriously. Yet the idea that the brain’s hemispheres, though linked, worked independently has a long history. As early as the third century B.C., Greek physicians speculated that the brain’s right hemisphere was geared toward “perception,” while the left was specialized in “understanding,” a rough and ready characterization that carries into our own time. In the 1970s and 1980s, the “split brain” became a hot topic in neuroscience, and soon popular wisdom produced a flood of books explaining how the left brain was a “scientist” and the right an “artist.”
Much insight into human psychology can be gleaned from these popular accounts, but “hard” science soon recognized that this simple dichotomy could not accommodate the wealth of data that ongoing research into hemispheric function produced. And as no “real” scientist wants to be associated with popular misconceptions — for fear of peer disapproval — the fact that ongoing research revealed no appreciable functional differences between the hemispheres — they both seemed to “do” the same things, after all — made it justifiable for neuroscientists to put the split-brain question on the back burner, where it has pretty much stayed. Until now.
One popular myth about the divided brain that remained part of mainstream neuroscience was the perception of the left brain as “dominant” and the right as “minor,” a kind of helpful but not terribly important sidekick that tags along as the boss deals with the serious business. In his fascinating, groundbreaking, relentlessly researched, and eloquently written work, Iain McGilchrist, a consultant psychiatrist as well as professor of English — one wants to say a “scientist” as well as an “artist” — challenges this misconception. The difference between the hemispheres, McGilchrist argues, is not in what they do, but in how they do it. And it’s a difference that makes all the difference.
Although each hemisphere is involved in virtually everything the brain does, each has its own take on the world, or attitude toward it, we might say, that is radically opposed to that of the other half. For McGilchrist, the right hemisphere, far from minor, is fundamental — it is, as he calls it, “the Master” — and its task is to present reality as a unified whole. It gives us the big picture of a living, breathing “Other” — whatever it is that exists outside our minds — with which it is in a reciprocal relationship, bringing that Other into being (at least for our experience) while it is itself altered by the encounter. The left hemisphere, although not dominant as previously supposed, is geared toward manipulating that Other, on developing means of controlling it and fashioning it in its own likeness. We can say that the right side presents a world for us to live in, while the left gives us the means of surviving in it. Although both hemispheres are necessary to be fully alive and fully human (not merely fully “functioning”: a left brain notion), their different perspectives on the outside world often clash. It’s like looking through a microscope and at a panorama simultaneously. The right needs the left because its picture, while of the whole, is fuzzy and lacks precision. So it’s the job of the left brain, as “the Emissary,” to unpack the gestalt the right presents and then return it, increasing the quality and depth of that whole picture. The left needs the right because while it can focus on minute particulars, in doing so it loses touch with everything else and can easily find itself adrift. One gives context, the other details. One sees the forest, the other the trees.
It seems like a good combination, but what McGilchrist argues is that the hemispheres are actually in a kind of struggle or rivalry, a dynamic tension that, in its best moments (sadly rare), produces works of genius and a matchless zest for life, but in its worst (more common) leads to a dead, denatured, mechanistic world of bits and pieces, a collection of unconnected fragments with no hope of forming a whole. (The right, he tells us, is geared toward living things, while the left prefers the mechanical.) This rivalry is an expression of the fundamental asymmetry between the hemispheres.
Although McGilchrist’s research here into the latest developments in neuroimaging is breathtaking, the newcomer to neuroscience may find it daunting. That would be a shame. The Master and His Emissary, while demanding, is beautifully written and eminently quotable. For example: “the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness,” McGilchrist writes, “is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with.” He apologizes for the length of the chapter dealing with the “hard” science necessary to dislodge the received opinion that the left hemisphere is the dominant partner, while the right is a tolerated hanger-on that adds a splash of color or some spice here and there. This formulation, McGilchrist argues, is a product of the very rivalry between the hemispheres that he takes pains to make clear.
McGilchrist asserts that throughout human history imbalances between the two hemispheres have driven our cultural and spiritual evolution. These imbalances have been evened out in a creative give-and-take he likens to Hegel’s dialectic, in which thesis and antithesis lead to a new synthesis that includes and transcends what went before. But what McGilchrist sees at work in the last few centuries is an increasing emphasis on the left hemisphere’s activities — at the expense of the right. Most mainstream neuroscience, he argues, is carried out under the aegis of scientific materialism: the belief that reality and everything in it can ultimately be “explained” in terms of little bits (atoms, molecules, genes, etc.) and their interactions. But materialism is itself a product of the left brain’s “take” on things (its tendency toward cutting up the whole into easily manipulated parts). It is not surprising, then, that materialist-minded neuroscientists would see the left as the boss and the right as second fiddle.
The hemispheres work, McGilchrist explains, by inhibiting each other in a kind of system of cerebral checks and balances. What has happened, at least since the Industrial Revolution (one of the major expressions of the left brain’s ability to master reality), is that the left brain has gained the upper hand in this inhibition and has been gradually silencing the right. In doing so, the left brain is in the process of re-creating the Other in its own image. More and more, McGilchrist argues, we find ourselves living in a world re-presented to us in terms the left brain demands. The danger is that, through a process of “positive feedback,” in which the world that the right brain “presences” is one that the left brain has already fashioned, we will find ourselves inhabiting a completely self-enclosed reality. Which is exactly what the left brain has in mind. McGilchrist provides disturbing evidence that such a world parallels that inhabited by schizophrenics. ¤
If nothing else, mainstream science’s refusal to accept that the whole can be anything more than the sum of its parts is one articulation of this development. The right brain, however, which knows better — the whole always comes before and is more than the parts, which are only segments of it, abstracted out by the left brain — cannot argue its case, for the simple reason that logical, sequential argument isn’t something it does. It can only show and provide the intuition that it is true. So we are left in the position of knowing that there is something more than the bits and pieces of reality the left brain gives us, but of not being able to say what it is — at least not in a way that the left brain will accept.
Poets, mystics, artists, even some philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, on whom McGilchrist draws frequently) can feel this, but they cannot provide the illusory certainty that the left brain requires: “illusory” because the precision such certainty requires is bought at the expense of knowledge of the whole. The situation is like thinking that you’re in love and having a scientist check your hormones to make sure. If he tells you that they’re not quite right, what are you going to believe: your fuzzy inarticulate feelings or his clinical report? Yet because the left brain demands certainty — remember, it focuses on minute particulars, nailing the piece down exactly by extracting it from the whole — it refuses to accept the vague sense of a reality larger than what it has under scrutiny as anything other than an illusion.
This may seem an interesting insight into how our brains operate, but we might ask what it really means for us. In a sense, all of McGilchrist’s meticulous marshalling of evidence is in preparation for this question, and while he is concerned about the left brain’s unwarranted eminence, he in no way suggests that we should jettison it and its work in favour of a cosy pseudo-mysticism. One of his central insights is that the kind of world we perceive depends on the kind of attention we direct toward it, a truth that phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger — both invoked by McGilchrist — established long ago. In the homely maxim, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. To the right brain, the world is — and, if we’re lucky, its “isness” produces in us a sense of wonder, something along the lines of a Zen satori or a sudden delight in the sheer interestingness of things. (As Heidegger and a handful of other thinkers said, that there should be anything rather than nothing is the inescapable mystery at the heart of things, a mystery that more analytical thinkers dismiss as nonsense.)
To the left brain, on the other hand, the world is something to be controlled, and understandably so, as in order to feel its “isness” we have to survive. McGilchrist argues that in a left-brain dominant world, the emphasis would be on increasing control, and the means of achieving this is by taking the right brain’s presencing of a whole and breaking it up into bits and pieces that can be easily reconstituted as a re-presentation, a symbolic virtual world, shot through with the left brain’s demand for clarity, precision, and certainty. Furthermore, McGilchrist contends that this is the kind of world we live in now, at least in the postmodern West. I find it hard to argue with his conclusion. What, for example, dotechnologies like HD and 3D do other than re-create a “reality” we prefer to absorb electronically?
McGilchrist contends that in pre-Socratic Greece, during the Renaissance, and throughout the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the two hemispheres reached a brilliant accord, each augmenting the other’s contribution. Through their creative opposition (as William Blake said, “Opposition is True Friendship”) they produced a high culture that respected the limits of certainty and honored the implicit, the tacit, and the ambiguous (Keats’s “negative capability”). But since the Romantics, the left brain has increasingly gained more ground; our use of “romantic” as a pejorative term is itself a sign of this. With the rise of modernism and then postmodernism, the notion that there is anything outside our representations has become increasingly jejune, and what nature remains accessible to us is highly managed and resourced. McGilchrist fears that in the rivalry between its two halves, the left brain seems to have gained the upper hand and is steadily creating a hall of mirrors, which will soon reflect nothing but itself, if it doesn’t do so already.
The diagnosis is grim, but McGilchrist does leave some room for hope. After all, the idea that life is full of surprises is a right brain insight, and as the German poet Hölderlin understood, where there is danger, salvation lies also. In some Eastern cultures, especially Japan, where the right brain view of things still carries weight, McGilchrist sees some possibility of correcting our imbalance. But even if you don’t accept McGilchrist’s thesis, the book is a fascinating treasure trove of insights into language, music, society, love, and other fundamental human concerns. One of his most important suggestions is that the view of human life as ruthlessly driven by “selfish genes” and other “competitor” metaphors may be only a ploy of left brain propaganda, and through a right brain appreciation of the big picture, we may escape the remorseless push and shove of “necessity.” I leave it to the reader to discover just how important this insight is. Perhaps if enough do, we may not have to settle for what’s left when there’s no right. ¤