Interview with Gary Lachman
Occult Politics, Nihilism, and the
Responsibility of the Imagination
Conducted by Matt Cardin, May 2018
Over the past two decades, Gary Lachman has become one of the most prolific and, in the opinion of many readers and critics (including this one), valuable contemporary writers on mysticism, occultism, and esotericism. In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard of him, or that you know of him only under his erstwhile rock and roll moniker, Gary Valentine, here’s his official bio:
Gary Lachman is the author of many books on consciousness, culture, and the Western esoteric tradition, including The Secret Teachers of the Western World; Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson; Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work; In Search of P. D. Ouspensky; A Secret History of Consciousness; Politics and the Occult; and The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. He writes for several journals in the US and UK and lectures on his work in the US, UK, and Europe. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and he has appeared in several radio and television documentaries. He is assistant professor in Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies. A founding member of the rock group Blondie, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
I first became aware of his work myself in 2010 when I came across a copy of his newly published book Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teaching in a chain bookstore. Having found it by pure chance, I ended up standing there reading it for half an hour, totally enthralled. A few years later, I was extremely pleased to gain Gary’s participation in my academic encyclopedia Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics, for which he wrote the entries on Stan Gooch, Carl Jung, and Colin Wilson.
Most recently, I was alerted by his publisher that his latest book would be forthcoming this very month. Its title is Dark Star Rising. Its subtitle is Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. Its description is this:
Did positive thinking and mental science help put Donald Trump in the White House? And are there any other hidden powers of the mind and thought at work in today’s world politics? In Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, historian and cultural critic Gary Lachman takes a close look at the various magical and esoteric ideas that are impacting political events across the globe. From New Thought and Chaos Magick to the far-right esotericism of Julius Evola and the Traditionalists, Lachman follows a trail of mystic clues that involve, among others, Norman Vincent Peale, domineering gurus and demagogues, Ayn Rand, Pepe the Frog, Rene Schwaller de Lubicz, synarchy, the Alt-Right, meme magic, and Vladimir Putin and his postmodern Rasputin. Come take a drop down the rabbit hole of occult politics in the twenty-first century and find out the post-truths and alternative facts surrounding the 45th President of the United States with one of the leading writers on esotericism and its influence on modern culture.
Clearly, the book intersects with some long-running themes of interest here at The Teeming Brain. Gary was good enough to sit down with me in cyberspace to answer some questions about it. Here is the record of that conversation.
MATT CARDIN: Thank you for your time here today, Gary. To begin with, what’s your basic argument in Dark Star Rising? Prospective readers can get a sense of the book’s general focus and vibe by reading the marketing copy, but can you condense its overall thrust into a sentence or three?
GARY LACHMAN: Dark Star Rising is about the strange “occult politics” that seem to be a part of both Trump’s presidency and that of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. As I say in the book, I first became aware of this when I read a post on Harvey Bishop’s New Thought blog. Bishop was commenting on the speech Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right, gave at the meeting of the National Policy Institute in Washington, following Trump’s election. Spencer greeted the crowd, hailing Trump’s victory, and saying that they — he and his comrades — had made it happen. They had “dreamed” Trump into office, had “willed” him into the White House. Bishop noted that turning dreams into reality, making your wishes come true, is a central aim of New Thought, mental science, and other teachings that emphasize the power of the mind to affect reality directly. Trump, we know, has been a lifelong devotee of “positive thinking;” Norman Vincent Peale, who popularized the “power of positive of thinking,” was a mentor. But now it seemed that people in Trump’s fan base were practitioners, too.
With this, I began to follow a trail which led around the world and involved things like “meme magic” (using the internet as a way of affecting reality), gurus, demagogues, and how some rather radical ideas about a new world order — or disorder — are informing some of the most powerful people on the planet.
MC: You’ve stated that Dark Star Rising can be seen as picking up where your previous book, 2017’s The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, leaves off. How so? What was the overall gist of that one, and how does the new one tap into it and develop its argument in new directions?
GL: Lost Knowledge of the Imagination looks at how imagination, rather than being about escaping from reality or creating a substitute for it, is actually a way in which we can gain knowledge of reality — but a knowledge rather different than what we usually understand by that term. Throughout Western history there has been a tradition that understood and explored this aspect of imagination — we call it the Western esoteric or Hermetic tradition — and it was held in high esteem. But it lost its prestige in the seventeenth century with the rise of science and our quantitative, measurable method of knowing that remains dominant today.
In the book I look at different examples of our “other” way of knowing, and at the idea that imagination is not only a way in which we can know reality, but that, in some way we do not understand, it is also intimately involved in creating reality, in bringing into being the world that we mistakenly assume exists on its own. The book links with Dark Star because in the last chapter I talk about the need for a “responsibility of the imagination,” arguing that imagination has its own rules and logic, and that the answer to the current marginalizing of imagination is not to abandon reason and let imagination rip, as many who are unhappy with our materialist worldview believe. If imagination has a hand in creating reality, then it is very important that we are careful about what we imagine. Dark Star is about this creative aspect of the imagination being used for less than innocent objectives.
“I began to follow a trail which led around the world and involved things like “meme magic” (using the internet as a way of affecting reality), gurus, demagogues, and how some rather radical ideas about a new world order — or disorder — are informing some of the most powerful people on the planet.”
MC: Russia plays a big part in the book. Russia is also, of course, playing a big part in the West’s popular imagination and discourse right now. I’m guessing your view of All Things Russian diverges significantly from the mainstream views, opinions, messages, and memes that are currently clotting the mass media airwaves. What’s your take on the present Russia flap in America and Britain?
GL: Well, the West has always been wary of Russia, and the converse is also true. What is interesting in the context of “occult politics” is that much of Putin’s strategy in the last decade has been informed by the rather eccentric ideas of the esotericist, geopolitical theorist, and ideological magpie Alexander Dugin.
Dugin started out in the 1980s as a punk Soviet dissident, and through a series of dizzying ideological changes — which involved adopting to different degrees National Socialism, Bolshevism, Fascism, and other radical political philosophies — he found himself in a position in which his ideas fell on eager and influential ears. Like the alt-right, with whom he is on friendly terms, he is a devotee of Chaos Magick. In fact, “chaos” is the central theme of his political philosophy; he is eager for some global disruption to happen, some smash-up that will mark the end of Western dominance. He is a vociferous advocate of “Eurasia,” which is the new identity that Russia, following years of an identity crisis, is adopting. This is the belief in a new, planetary civilization, emerging out of Russia, that involves absorbing much of the territory that made up the USSR. Putin’s campaigns in Crimea and Ukraine were informed, I believe, to no small degree by some of Dugin’s ideas.
MC: I’m tempted to present my next question simply by dropping a name — Steve Bannon — and asking you to elaborate. But actually, this deserves a bit more background. Last year your editor at TarcherPerigree, Mitch Horowitz, published a fascinating piece at Salon in which he described Steve Bannon as “a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought,” and related that Bannon had called him personally in 2009 to praise his (Horowitz’s) book Occult America. I found this, to put it mildly, astonishing and fascinating, and I’m betting many other people felt the same way. I’m conducting this interview with you before I have actually read Dark Star Rising in full, and I’m betting, based on Horowitz’s words, that Bannon plays some part in the book — an assumption that’s abetted by the fact that you have mentioned him in connection with it. So, does he?
GL: Bannon isn’t in the picture in quite the way he was when I was writing the book, but he, like Dugin, is another who was — is — interested in bringing down the old regime so that a new world can rise up from the ruins. He has much in common with Dugin. One thing is that both are readers of Julius Evola, the Italian far-right esoteric thinker who tried to curry favor first with Mussolini and then with the Nazis. I knew things had taken a very strange turn when the New York Times reported that during a talk to a select group of conservative churchmen in the Vatican, Bannon name checked Evola. That was new and very different. Bannon espouses the “traditional values” embraced by conservatives — and not only conservatives — and he links these with Evola’s Traditionalism. The two are rather different, but in general both Bannon and Dugin share a similar conservative outlook, and these days Putin is presenting himself and Russia as the savior of tradition, which the decadent West dismisses.
“If imagination has a hand in creating reality, then it is very important that we are careful about what we imagine. I’d say we are going through an unavoidable epistemological crisis in which the very basis of our understanding of reality and ourselves is is being uprooted.”
MC: What you’re saying leads right into my next and final question. A great many people in the world today are having a major “What the hell?” moment. Massive truths, ideas, systems, trends, and entities — national, political, economic, social, cultural, psychological, religious, spiritual — that seemed firm and unshakable are now being roundly shaken by what appear to be even more massive forces that are intent on overturning all settled assumptions. In short, it’s an almost classically apocalyptic moment. But the exact nature of the forces at work and in play can seem pointedly obscure. This leads to a lot of fear, angst, anger, conspiracy theorizing, and other negativity on the right, and also on the left, and at all points above, below, and in between. The type of wide-scope, deep-diving analysis that you go for in Dark Star Rising appeals to me, and to many people, not least because it provides a sense of illumination regarding all of this. It offers a way to make sense of the present apocalyptic uprush that feels more sophisticated and substantial than the ephemeral sound bites and hot takes offered by the talking heads and professional pundits.
So, what do you personally think and hope the book contributes to the present cultural moment? What can a serious reader hope to find in it and draw from it that will speak meaningfully into the storm?
GL: As I say in the book and elsewhere, I think we are experiencing the nihilism that, in the 1880s, the philosopher Nietzsche predicted was on its way and could not be avoided. One consequence, and example, of this is the “post-truth/alternative fact” world we live in today. I call this “trickle-down metaphysics.” Nietzsche, and philosophers like Heidegger who followed him, recognized that the pursuit of “truth” via science led to the disturbing recognition that Truth in some absolute sense did not exist. The purely quantitative, measurable approach to knowledge can only provide relative truths. While this did not affect our utilitarian use of truth or facts — witness technology — it did undermine any sense of a stable meaning or purpose in life. Hence the existential uncertainty that characterized the 20th century and has become practically commonplace today.
Another philosopher, Jean Gebser, believed that we are going through what he called the “breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness structure.” Fundamentally, this means that the rational, logical, scientific view of the world that has dominated since the seventeenth century is now taking itself apart. Gebser believed this was in preparation for a new, “integral” structure of consciousness, but he knew the process was no picnic. I’d say we are going through an unavoidable epistemological crisis in which the very basis of our understanding of reality and ourselves is is being uprooted. I’d say this is a result of the inadequacies of the purely rational, “scientistic” worldview that has dominated. Yet we have not yet arrived at a stable grasp of our “other” way of knowing. Hence the need for a “responsibility of the imagination,” so that we are not merely carried away by a pendulum swing to a new dark age, where reason and logic are discredited outright.
PURCHASE DARK STAR RISING