Gary Lachman is the author of twenty-one books on the links between culture, consciousness, and the western esoteric tradition, including Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, The Secret Teachers of the Western World, and Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World. He writes for several journals in the UK, US, and Europe and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In a former life he was a founding member of the rock group Blondie and is an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He can be reached at www.garylachman.co.uk
When did you first get interested in esoteric studies?
I first became interested in the sort of thing I write about – the occult, esotericism, ‘rejected knowledge, consciousness – in the spring of 1975, when I started playing with Blondie. Debbie and Chris had a kitschy sort of interest in the occult, and when we started living together in a run down loft space on the Bowery – just a block away from CBGB – one of the other people in the building was an artist with an interest in Aleister Crowley. He gave impromptu readings of Crowley’s Thoth tarot and painted large, colorful canvases based on the cards. There was a lot of other debris left behind by the previous late 60s generation, and a book I can across then I can honestly say changed my life. It was The Occult by the British writer Colin Wilson, who died a years ago and about whom I’ve written a book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. What made Wilson’s book different from other books on the occult was that he approached it from an existential perspective and as a part of human consciousness. It was simply fascinating and from then until now I’ve been reading and later writing about it.
Many people believe in a hidden brotherhood of teachers, such as the Sarmoung Brotherhood mentioned by Gurdjieff, the Herbologist who became Steiners’ Mentor and Researchers of the Truth for which Daskolas was an active member, do you believe there are people among us who have access to secret knowledge?
I tend not to think of ‘hidden brotherhoods’ as literally as some people may. When Madame Blavatsky spoke of her ‘masters’, she meant actual men who had mastered their inner powers and with whom she had contact, physical and otherwise. There may indeed have been such men – I write about them in my book on Blavatsky. But I don’t think they belonged to the sort of thing people have in mind when they think of the Illuminati or of Dan Brown. I do believe that throughout history there have been men and women who did have access to what we can call rejected and in that way secret knowledge. I write about them in The Secret Teachers of the Western World . For example, Dante belonged to a society known as the Fedeli d’Amore – the Faithful of Love – that combined developing a new poetic language with devotion to the sacred feminine, in order to bring about a change in the consciousness of the time. They did not need to belong to some overtly ‘secret’ cult in order to devote their powers and determination to this, but they were men informed by esoteric ideas and motivated by achieving the kind of inner integration that esoteric philosophy pursues. The knowledge is there. It’s a matter of taking it seriously and understanding it as part of our psychology. An important book that has helped me do this is Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, which reboots the left/right brain discussion in very fruitful ways.
Carl Jung real work was that of a mystic, and yet his Red book was a secret psychiatry tried to hide, do you think there will be a time when modern science recognises esoteric studies?
I would hope that it would recognize that what we understand as esoteric or Hermetic pursuits are not simply mistakes or superstitions – although, to be sure, there are quite enough of those to occupy some people – but that they arise from an entire side of our own being, our own mind and consciousness, that has been sidelined and marginalized for the last few centuries. This would mean that it would recognize that there are aspects of human existence and reality that can’t be accounted for adequately in terms of modern science. A science that saw this would allow the way of knowing and the kind of knowledge associated with esoteric teachings to be understood in its own terms, just as we understand art or literature – unless, of course, we want to explain these disciplines away, which, sadly, much of the reductionist sensibility rooted in modern science does want to do. I would call the esoteric tradition one of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s ‘symbolic forms’, ways in which we know and organize our experience of the world. What we call modern science has gained a dominance in the knowledge hierarchy not so much because it is ‘true’ but because it works. Our ideas of truth are still very much informed by notions of utility and use. The kind of knowledge the esoteric tradition is interested in is not so utilitarian. But the most important things in life are in a real sense useless. We do not live by bread alone.
The dangers of self-analysis, which nearly drove Jung mad and sent Nietzsche to an insane asylum, what method would you suggest for people interested in inner exploration?
I think one has to find a practice or method or ‘way’ that suits one’s own interests and character. There are many to choose from – probably too many. I think the easiest and most fruitful way to begin is by paying attention to your own consciousness. This is the beginning of all spiritual and philosophical pursuits. They are about becoming aware of and familiar with what happens inside you. You can start small but if you are patient, attentive, and persist, you will begin to notice things you hadn’t before. You don’t need to give up the day job. Just spend some time each day being aware that you have an inside. Grasping the reality of this can be something of a revelation. Becoming curious about your own existence can lead to some remarkable things. And read a lot and think about it.
The fourth way seemed a brilliant theory; but finally, is there a workable model for it to work. I ask this because nobody seems to have achieved the claims made by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky retired to alcoholism in later life?
Well I’d say that I don’t know everyone who has followed the Fourth Way, so I can’t judge whether in general it ‘works’ or not. I know that when I was practicing it regularly some years ago I did receive some remarkable results, enough to convince me by experience of what I had already accepted in theory. It is true, though, that some of Gurdjieff’s pupils later moved on to or incorporated other teachings in their lives. And yes, Ouspensky’s last days were by most accounts sad. But he was a particular case, one I’ve devoted a book to, In Search of P.D. Ouspensky. One answer is that many people succumb to dependencies, but not all of then write A New Model of the Universe or In Search of the Miraculous. I would say that while Gurdjieff was clearly one of the most remarkable men of the last century, as Colin Wilson points out, there are a few places where he might have missed some things. But to believe in some infallible superman is the sign of hero-worship, not of a serious interest in the mechanics of consciousness. We owe all of our forbears in this work a great debt of thanks, for showing us not only what works, but also what doesn’t. Often that is the most important knowledge.
Through your studies on various luminaries have you found a common perennial philosophy that spans the diverse range of writers from Colin Wilson, Steiner, Jung etc. Can you see a thread linking their thoughts?
One common thread that links my study of Wilson and existentialism and the western esoteric tradition is that at the center of both is the mystery of human reality and its place in the world. What we can call ‘the human question’ is essential to both. And essential to this question is the question of consciousness and its place in the universe. Wilson himself was led to his interest in occult and paranormal phenomena through his work in creating a new, positive, evolutionary existentialism, one that could incorporate the kind of insights into reality that came in mystical experiences. In this he was in the tradition of William James and Henri Bergson as well as more esoteric thinkers. Much of my own work has been about showing the links between what we can call ‘esoteric psychology’ and more mainstream although discarded varieties. As both are about consciousness this should not come as a surprise.
Finally, have you had a personal experience that has opened you up to the miraculous, and can you share it?
There wasn’t one experience that put me on the esoteric path. It was a gradual development, through understanding the ideas and then reaching back into their history, as well as, as I say above, learning how to pay attention to my consciousness. But I can say that a song I wrote while in Blondie, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”, in 1977, was about telepathic experiences my girlfriend at the time and myself were having. And in 1980, when I started keeping a dream journal, I soon discovered that I seem to be prone to precognitive dreams. Nothing spectacular, but I often will dream of some event etc. and lo and behold, it happens. I’ve been aware of this, as well as other very impressive synchronicities – ‘meaningful coinidences’ – since then and have several notebooks full of them. This sort of thing surrounds us. We simply don’t pay attention to it. If we did, our lives would be different, believe me.