Gary Lachman Interview: Music, Magick and Mind
In the KNOW: Music, Magick and Mind
An interview with Gary Valentine Lachman
by Jack Phoenix (James Nye)
Born in 1955 in New Jersey, Gary Lachman moved to London in 1996. He has contributed to Fortean Times, Mojo, TLS, Bizarre, Literary Review and Gnosis. Aside from writing, he has been a bass player and composer for Blondie, a guitarist with Iggy Pop, and the leader of his own groups The Know and Fire Escape. His first book, Turn Off Your Mind – The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2002 – reissued in 2009 as The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind) charts the popular growth of occultism followed by a descent into the violence and madness exemplified by Charles Manson and his Family. A second book, an autobiogsraphy called New York Rocker, was also published in 2002. Since then, Lachman has written books on Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, Swedenborg, Jung, and Politics and the Occult. His new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus – from Ancient Egypt to Modern World, is due for publication by Floris books in 2011.
Jack Phoenix (James Nye) met up with him at his “home from home” the British Library, largely to discuss Turn Off Your Mind, and the book Lachman was working on at the time, A Secret History of Consciousness. This interview was first published on the Fortean Times website
Wh at were your earliest influences?
I star ted rea ding comics when I was about five years old. My mother wasn’t too happy about it! I read the standard Superman and Batman, but then I discov ered Marvel Comics – The Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and later horror comics called Creepy and Eerie. After that, it was Conan the Barbarian and H.P. Lovecraft. They had great artwork, and were an amazing influence – really brilliant. I didn’t get to talk about them as much as I would have liked in Turn Off Your Mind.
There are some hints of a personal story in the book . .
For reasons of space, I left out a lot. Originally the idea wasn’t to focus on the dark side of the Sixties, but to examine the whole idea of the occult revival. I got asked to talk at a symposium on the decade, and it struck me that this was an area that hadn’t really been discussed. It’s not that I’ve got my head back then, but my sensibilities were influenced by that time a great deal. I was a kid then, and am a product of the pop culture of the decade.
One critic of your book seemed to think that “there’s nothing to explain why any of it should be of interest to anyone but the adolescent or drug addled”! (Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday, 27 May 2001). But you do make it abundantly clear that belief in occultism has always been politically and culturally relevant, particularly regarding the rise of fascism.
It is part of the territory. That’s not to say that any group interested in occultism has a direct link to fascism or authoritarianism, but it is linked to that plunge into the unconscious. Leftist politics are linked to Enlightenment ideas of reason and the rational state, even though in the book I show that 1960s left-wing political activists were using tactics that the Nazis and other extremists were using: shouting people down, and using violence to achieve their ends.
I’d like to write a book on politics and the occult*. You hear a lot about the link with fascism, for example in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent books The Occult Roots of Nazism, and Hitler’s Priestess – and in Pauwels and Bergier’s popular The Morning of the Magicians which I discuss in Turn Off Your Mind. But there is another side. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were Freemasons and were involved in magical or occult investigation; Eliphas Levi was a rampant socialist and wrote socialist tracts before his books on magic [see Fortean Times 120:28-31]; Blavatsky was involved in the Indian independence movement. There is some debate about the centrality and depth of Nazi involvement in the occult. Whatever the case, it has coloured and monopolized the issue of occultism and politics.
[* Gary Lachman did return to cover this subject in his book Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (2008, Quest).]
I’d always thought of Timothy Leary as an important figure, if perhaps somewhat foolhardy in his dealings with the establishment. In Turn Off Your Mind, you quote Leary as inciting murder!
In one sense he was opportunistic – taking as much advantage as he could of the Zeitgeist. He was a criminal in the eyes of the US government, so you can understand how he would have not been impartial towards the police. Nevertheless, it is amazing to see someone going quite quickly from making statements about how LSD is going to save the world and bring love and peace, to encouraging people to kill policemen. It’s that swing to the extreme that’s linked to very high expectations, and that purity and idealism. If it doesn’t happen fairly quickly, then people want to give it a push.
There’s another theme that runs through the book. I don’t know how clear it is, but this hunger for extremes exists in all sorts of people – in the Beats for example, or in someone as obscure as Robert DeGrimston who was the head of the Process [see FT134:34-39]. In fact, the tracts DeGrimston wrote are the clearest and most vocal expression of this desire for extremity. Again, this is understandable. I think most vital people at some time in their life want all or nothing. Not to sound like some grandma, but it can easily turn into a dangerous situation. I also find that there’s something almost pathetic about it. DeGrimston couldn’t handle the fact that 90 per cent of our life is lukewarm mediocrity – so he though “Well, let’s destroy the world then!”
People want intense experiences?
Yes. I’m not saying that’s not good, but there’s a certain point at which the hunger for that becomes so extreme and so overriding that it easily leads you into danger. It’s what I call in the book, “giving in to strange forces”. Herman Hesse, who was writing in the 1920s, was one of the few who gave pause and acknowledged that the plunge into the Unconscious led him close to becoming a criminal. There’s a certain level where a criminal can be seen as a rebel against society, but that pose of being a rebel can also just be a front for self-indulgence and thuggery.
Tell me about your own involvement with the occult.
During the time I was in The Know (1978-1980), I got involved with a Crowley Thelemite group in Los Angeles. I was actually a member of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis). I don’t know their direct lineage – there are many competing factions – but it was interesting. I did all the rituals in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice. There’s a sort of DIY manual at the back.
Did you go into it as a believer?
Well, I was interested in it. I’d read Colin Wilson‘s The Occult, and New York friends had books of Crowley’s like Diary of a Drug Fiend, and Moonchild. The Nietzschean aspects of Crowley interested me. I felt that Crowley’s philosophy of the True Will was bit like the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. Anycase, I thought it was better to try it rather than just talk about it.
So were you interested in accruing some sort of occult power?
Nietzsche’s always misunderstood. It’s not about power over people, it’s about power over yourself – self-discipline – creating yourself. The whole idea of the True Will struck me as basically reaching and making contact with some deeper part of myself. One of the people I was involved with seemed to think that they could define anything they felt like doing as their True Will though.
If you submit to every impulse, you’re not free, you’re a slave of unconscious drives.
That’s true. This is one of the fallacies with Crowley’s philosophy. Even though he mastered all the occult techniques, he really had no discipline over himself, and allowed himself every indulgence and then rationalized it. This had obvious effects on his personality and character.
I’ve never understood the extent to which Crowley is admired. Of course he’s fascinating – he made sure of that. But he was an appalling parent, husband, and friend, an uneven poet, a poor scholar, and a failure as far as magickal self-discipline goes.
I totally agree. There’s a wake of shattered lives behind him. But his followers would say you must separate the man from his teaching, as with Gurdjieff, who wasn’t as extreme as Crowley, but still had an unsavoury side to him. But I think it’s too easy to do that. I don’t think Crowley was particularly successful even in his own endeavours.
Crowley’s broadest definition of magick seems to mean the achievement of anything desired, whether it’s making a cup of tea or climbing a mountain. But in terms of what people might regard as special powers, he seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful.
I think he had some innate powers. Colin Wilson makes the point in his chapter on Crowley in The Occult that he had some kind of animal second sight. There’s a story where he’s walking along Fifth Avenue in New York, and he makes someone trip over telekinetically. I’m inclined to think that he did. But it doesn’t seem to that desirable thing to achieve!
And surely not that impressive either? I’m reminded of Old Catholic bishop Sean Manchester’s comment in FT 148:52 about supernatural curses directed by occultisms: “I doubt whether collectively worldwide they could muster enough energy to soft-boil an egg, much less make me keel over.”
Wilson points out that in his autobiography Crowley admits that he would have done better had he not got into magick and the decadent life. He talks about his mountain climbing and says that that was when he felt the best – when he had ridden above his ego. As someone very involved in the ego, these moments unfortunately didn’t last very long. Crowley couldn’t escape from himself, and I think that’s ultimately the problem – he really had a schoolboy’s sensibility. He’s not a hero, he’s a moral lesson. If he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him. He’s the Romantic, decadent sensibility taken to an extreme. His life shows us its limits.
In Turn Off Your Mind you say that the OTO rituals are basically tantric sex magick designed to achieve altered states of consciousness. Some of them seem to involve – how shall I put it? – the ingestion of bodily effluvia. Didn’t it give you a tummy ache?
Well, I admitted in the BBC2 documentary Magick – Art of Darkness that I had participated in a Gnostic Mass which involved eating a communion wafer that was dosed with menstrual blood. But I mean, it wasn’t dripping or anything like that. I guess there was a little speck in there somewhere. There’s lots written about the use of sexual fluids for magickal purposes, for example in Peter Redgrove’s fascinating book The Black Goddess and the Unseen Real (1988). I don’t know if eating them or drinking them gives you something in particular. I think they’re most effective in situ rather than as an additive in a biscuit.
Would it be something to do with the potentially liberating experience of breaking a taboo?
That has something to do with it, sure. Crowley talks about using sexual fluids as elixirs in his diaries. After one of his sex magick episodes he talks about the consistency of the elixir he’s produced. He even made tonic pills containing his semen. They’d probably sell very well today!
Did you continue exploring altered states after leaving the OTO?
I was interested in altered states of consciousness in general. J.W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time (1927) impressed me. And again, as with magick, I thought I’d check it out by doing as he suggests. I kept a dream journal from 1980 until the mid 1990s. Dunne claimed it would demonstrate the existence of precognitive dreams. He was right – I had quite a few which I discussed in 1997 in The Quest, an American magazine. I have no theory about how this works, but my experience is that it happened so many times that I’m willing to believe that it’s common and it’s real.
I think Jung is right when he says that there are things in the mind that are not voluntary or subjective. One are of research that’s been very fruitful for me is the hypnogogic state. I read an interesting book on Swedenborg by a clinical psychologist named Wilson Van Dusen called The Presence of Other Worlds (1974). It’s a study of the states Swedenborg got into when he was having his visions. Van Dusen experimented with them himself, and of course the Surrealists had done it with automatic writing.
I pursued them myself, and suddenly I would hear things, get sentences, or see scenes and they were clearly auto-symbolic – they were not just nonsense. I recognized these things were actually metaphors of either state I was in at the time, or ideas I’d been thinking about. There was an intelligent, autonomous, recognisable process taking place. It was neither random, nor the junk disposal mechanism that some dream theorists claim. I didn’t have anything like Jung’s Philemon or Edward Kelley’s Enochian experience, but I do feel that these processes are not a result of my rational self, nor am I talking to or fooling myself.
Have you developed any reliable techniques for inducing hypnogogic states?
I used to be much better at it before I had children. My two-and-a-half year old son wakes up around 6.30am, so it’s hard to linger in bed in the morning, and at night I’m too knackered. Occasionally, if I’m aware enough and am dozing, I can access it. One example: I was reading something about Jung and Freud and how both of them were using themes from Greek mythology in their writing about the unconscious. I started getting drowsy, and lay back and drifted off. As I did so I had an image of cellar doors gradually opening. Clearly this was an image of what was taking place: as I was becoming unconscious, I was drifting down into the basement of the mind. Suddenly the door opened up and all these mythological characters came running out – Hermes and so on. And this happened spontaneously. That convinced me.
I think you have to be as disciplined about it as you do if you’re doing meditation. There’s the Mavromatis book Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, and a chapter in Ouspensky’s New Model of the Universe, and also in Wilson Van Dusen’s The Natural Depth in Man (1972). I’m interested in Rudolf Steiner, and think his readings of the Akashic Records were probably hypnogogic states. That isn’t to say that it’s all absolute baloney and dreaming. Mavromatis goes into this – there’s evidence that these states are conducive to psychism and precognition. At the same time, they are like dreams, so you get this combination of reliable evidence and wacky stuff.
Do you think Crowley’s encounters with the demon Choronzon, the qliphoth of the kabbalah, and meetings with fairies and perhaps some encounters with supposed aliens are related to this hypnogogic state?
I guess you can open that door, and who knows exactly what will come through it? As Aldous Huxley says in Heaven and Hell, the mind has its own exotic and unexplored continents. It’s subjective in the sense that it’s inside my head, but it’s objective in the sense that there are common features to this inner landscape. I think Huxley was right about this. You don’t know what’s there. I’m not try to be scary. There’s a possibility there. There’s no reason why you should immediately encounter qliphothic entities, but perhaps if you’re interested in that sort of thing, or your pursuits lead you in that direction, you may attract that sort of form.
You mean that certain things might take certain forms in certain people’s minds?
I forget who said it first, maybe it was Blavatsky, but the spirits are like the street people of the astral world. There’s nothing else going on – they’re just hanging out waiting for spare change. So it could be that things that you find might not be that interesting to spend time with!
Is this related to your research for A Secret History of Consciousness?
I noticed that my precognitive dreams came in patches and were associated with synchronicities, so I kept a coincidence notebook. Andreas Mavromatis’ fascinating book Hypnagogia is a very dry academic approach, but it’s the most thorough book I’ve read about it. He postulates that hypnogogic states are an indication of a new form of consciousness emerging. Obviously they’ve been around for a very long time, but we can be more aware of them now. We have the ability to understand the mechanism behind them and can induce them.
I talk about the idea of moving into a new form of consciousness in Turn Off Your Mind in relation to Pauwels and Bergier and others. I’m interested in an obscure philosopher named Jean Gebser who wrote a massive book called The Ever Present Origin (English translation 1985). Basically he argues that throughout history you can recognize these mutations of consciousness. He calls them structures of consciousness: the archaic, the magical, the mythic and the mental. He argues that since the early 20th century we’ve been moving into what he calls the integral structure which is a synthesis of the four previous structures. One of the forms this new consciousness will take is a different understanding and experience of time, and that’s one of the themes I’m discussing in the book. It’s basically about the evolution of consciousness.
Are you interested in artificial intelligence theorists like Marvin Minsky, author of The Society of Mind (1987)?
Not really. I talk about some current scientific ideas about consciousness, but part of me wants to ask why these scientists have a monopoly on the subject. I don’t see what computers and artificial intelligence has to do with it. For example, in his book Consciousness Explained (1993) Daniel Dennett spends 500 pages arguing that consciousness doesn’t exist! Well, if he wants to argue that he’s unconscious, that’s fine – but he should leave the rest of us to have our own ideas about it.
I’m not an academic, and have no reputation to lose, so I can say these things and not worry about it. But I think there is this whole scientification and monopolization of interior experience that doesn’t bode well. Once they feel that they’ve explained it, then obviously there’ll e a technology built around it, and they’ll put it to use in some way. And that’s dangerous.
There’s no such thing as consciousness per se, I think – except perhaps in some intense mystical experiences. But if there’s your consciousness and my consciousness, and the consciousness of people around us, then explaining consciousness means explaining everything. I just don’t think it can be done. There’s something very arrogant about the attempt to reduce this multiplicity to a simple explanation.
In Turn Off Your Mind, you don’t really explain why you think the 1960s occult resurgence happened.
Maybe the higher spiritual intelligences thought it was time! Certainly Pauwels and Bergier wrote The Morning of the Magicians at the right time. You had postwar dreariness, and existentialism as the intellectual flavour of the time. There was a bleak vision of things, and so colourful occult stuff was very attractive. The 1950s were very repressed, and I think it just caught the imagination.
Mircea Eliade talks about how when Morning of the Magicians first came out there was a feeling that this was the most exciting time in history. In the States it was connected with Kennedy’s New Frontier and the space program. As a kid I can remembering with rapt attention the rocket launches – it was like science fiction coming true. I thought that when I grew up I would live on Mars. There were no limits to human advancement. After Kennedy’s assassination people were looking for heroes – I think this is one reason the Beatles were so phenomenally popular. They came just at the right time when a hole had been punched in the American psyche.
The negative aspect of it is that people want to subordinate themselves to authority, even if it’s an alternative authority, such as a guru or rock star. Also, people feel betrayed by the standard scientific and religious paradigms. They just aren’t meaningful enough.
I think the scientific message is that there is no meaning to anything: the universe is the result of an explosion that happened for no reason, our of less than nothing. We’re just a meaningless hurrying of atoms. Well, I’m not particularly satisfied by that. Although there are more optimistic scientists like John Barrow who co-authored The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), this is an exception. The standard model is rather bleak. Strangely, in a lot of New Age alternative thinking, especially the sort that is ecologically focussed, there is a rising misanthropy – a thought that we are not more important than other species. In that sense, I think they share the idea that there is no particular meaning to human existence, or importance to being human.
I’m not arguing for the 19th century idea that because we are the highest species we can do whatever we want with the planet. But I think there’s a possible danger in this kind of misanthropy propelled by a desire to save the planet. I also think that,if you look at it impartially, so much of what science tells us I no less weird that what occultisms have been saying. John Wheeler said that there is no ‘outside’, that somehow our subjective experience creates it in some way. I’ll be talking about things along that line in A Secret History of Consciousness. Owen Barfield called this “participatory epistemology” – the whole idea that consciousness participates in the world we see, that it’s not just a blank. We don’t passively reflect what’s out there. Unconsciously we structure the data we receive but are unaware of these structuring mechanisms.
Being unaware of the “software” we are using to make sense of the data we’re receiving, most of which we have to exclude from consciousness in order to avoid overload?
Bergson and William James were talking about that. There’s a book called The User Illusion (1998) by Tor Nørretranders which suggests that our sense of self, our sense of an “I” which we experience immediately, is the result of different sorts of neural processes going on. He talks a lot about a neurophysicist called Benjamin Libet who discovered that before you or I make a mental decision to do something which we would say was a spontaneous act, the brain has a burst of electrical activity he called the “readiness potential”. So what we consider to be spontaneous isn’t at all.
I’m interested in this whole idea that this sense of self is structured, is presented to us. Of course you encounter the problem of language as soon as you try to discuss these things. But the reason I’m interested in it is that these are things that have been said within the esoteric traditions in different ways but haven’t been taken seriously by people outside the esoteric spheres. They’re ignored because they were not said by scientist with a Ph.D in the field.
It also removes from existence any sense of what the Surrealist André Breton called “the marvellous”.
Exactly. Everything is “explained”. It’s like knowing what happens at the end of a book. Suddenly you no longer want to read it.
I think this is what interests me in the occult and the paranormal – and in Fortean Times. It doesn’t give me any answers, but it constantly reminds me that I am living in something extraordinary and marvellous, full of oddity, strangeness and absurdity.
I think that’s the reason I got into it too. I didn’t want special powers, it’s just that it seemed a much more interesting way of looking at the world. Anything that makes life more interesting will suggest that you pay more attention to it, and if you do you’ll see more of what’s there. If you assume that it’s not particularly interesting, and that we know all that needs to be known anyway, you’re not going to see anything new. It’s self-defeating to assume that everything is known.
But some occult believers share this arrogance in assuming that their model of reality is complete.
There is an unwillingness to take a broader view, because it makes it more difficult to assimilate the data. When I worked at a New Age bookstore this happened all the time. People had found THE answer – that was it. They weren’t interested in new information unless it broadly supported their existing beliefs. One of the reasons that I like Fortean Times is that, although I may not agree with everything that some of the contributors say, I still find it consistently stimulating because they’re willing to explore areas that a lot of people ignore.
Another reason for the occult resurgence is surely that it attempts to allay the anxiety of uncertainty?
I think you’re right. But I guess the other side of it is that the same things that cause anxiety could give rise to wonder, awe or surprise, and if you get rid of that itch to have everything figured out, then you can be open to different possibilities. The one good thing that postmodernism contributed is the idea that life is much more complex and multi-dimensional that we previously thought, and that makes life richer and more exciting.
Are you as pessimistic as you seem in the conclusion to the book?
No, I’m not. I actually don’t think I’m pessimistic in the book, just realistic. I think I’m optimistic in the long run, and pessimistic about some short term issues. Again, this whole drive to explain things away – I don’t want to sound paranoid about it, but I don’t think it’s going to give rise to anything good. I am optimistic, but in therms of the book Turn Off Your Mind, I think a lot of the sensibilities that informed (what strikes me as) reckless pursuit of occultism – what I call “endarkenment” – are still around and always will be, because they’re so appealing and seductive.
Don’t you feel that life has always been pretty messy? In the book you mention William Burroughs’ injunction to “exterminate all rational thought”, but surely it’s not much of a challenge? People like to think of themselves as rational and self-determining, but they’re actually driven by powerful unconscious forces.
I think there is a perennial swing between the extremes of rationalism and irrationalism, or at least non-rationalism. In an early version of the book I mentioned the Goldilocks Theory of History: history swings back and forth between “too hot” and “too cold”. It rarely hits “just right”, and does so in individual cases rather than socially or culturally. The “just right” times are this strange blend between rationalism and the unconscious. Those are states of creative genius. This is why hypnogogic states interest me – it’s one form of having conscious access to the unconscious. It’s unlike dream states where you are given over to it. You can participate, but also see them as autonomous.
Robert Anton Wilson advised that no one should risk practical occultism without a grounding in philosophy, General Semantics and psychology. Unfortunately I think few people listen to that sort of advice – they just jump into the maelstrom of the unconscious and many of them drown.
That’s another reason I got out of the OTO. Some of the people I knew who were involved became completely crazy, doing violent and illegal things which they justified to themselves because they were allegedly following their True Will. I just thought it didn’t make sense.
(c) Jack Phoenix, James Nye 2002
Gary Lachman Bibliography:
- Two Essays on Colin Wilson: World Rejection and Criminal Romantics AND From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man (Colin Wilson Studies) (1994, paperback ISBN 0-946650-52-7, hardcover ISBN 0-946650-53-5)
- Colin Wilson as Philosopher (Colin Wilson Studies) (with John Shand, 1996, ISBN 0-946650-59-4)
- New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation, with Blondie, Iggy Pop and Others, 1974-1981 (2002, ISBN 0-283-06367-X)
- Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side Of The Age of Aquarius (2002, ISBN 0-283-06366-1, 2003, ISBN 0-9713942-3-7)
- A Secret History of Consciousness (2003, ISBN 1-58420-011-1)
- The Dedalus Occult Reader: The Garden of Hermetic Dreams (editor of anthology, 2004, ISBN 1-903517-32-X)
- In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (hardcover, 2004, ISBN 0-8356-0840-9, paperback, 2006, ISBN 0-8356-0848-4) Chapter VI, Online
- A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult (2005, ISBN 1-56025-656-7)
- Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (2006, ISBN 0-85448-149-4)
- Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work (2007, ISBN 1-58542-543-5)
- The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters(2008, ISBN 978-1-903517-66-6)
- Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen(2008, ISBN 978-0-8356-0857-2)
- The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind (updated, enlarged edition 2009, ISBN 978-1-903517-70-3)
- Jung The Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung‘s Life and Teachings (2010 ISBN 1-58542-792-6)
- The Quest For Hermes Trismegistus From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World (2011 ISBN 978-0863-157981)
For more information, visit Gary Lachman’s official website.