Friday, June 16, 2017

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

23568868Sometimes I pick up a book on an entirely unexpected whim, and so I did with The Neverending Story. I saw the 1991 Wolfgang Peterson film of the story back when our daughters were kids, and I remember thinking that it was pretty good. (The younger daughter, upon being quizzed, reports that she found the movie frightening, about people losing their memories. Actually, the issue of memory came in the second half of the book and was the subject of a sequel, The Next Chapter. She has a good--albeit traumatized--memory!) Anyway, good children’s and YA lit usually packs in a good story, fun, and a quick read (unless you're doing so aloud). This proved entirely correct with this classic. The film, as best as I recall it, did a pretty good job of tracking the book, so I was happy to learn again about Atreyu, the heroic young warrior, Falkor, the luck dragon, the Swamps of Sadness, and the Child-like Empress. (In doing some research I learned that author Ende didn’t like the film production and tried to stop it, but he failed. It’s been too long since I saw the film one around the time of its release, but it is an elegant and involved book, and that almost always means that a film adaptation will often prove thin by comparison.)


I won’t go into details about the plot, but I do want to share an extended passage that I found especially resonant, demonstrating again intriguing literature comes in all manner of cover: 


(Gmork, the werewolf that has been hunting for Atreyu, while caught in a trap, enters into a conversation with the young hero about the fate of Fantastica, which has been slowly disappearing into the Nothing:)

"You ask me what you [Atreyu] will be there [in the human world]. But what are you here? One of the creatures of Fantastica? Dreams, poetic conventions, characters in the neverending story. You think you're real? Well yes, here are in your world you are. But when you been through the Nothing, you won't be real anymore. You'll be unrecognizable. You'll be in another world. In that world, your Fantasticans won't be anything like yourselves. You'll bring delusion and madness into the human world. Tell me, sonny, what do you suppose will become of all the Spook City folk you who have jumped in to the Nothing?" 
"I don't know," Atreyu stammered. 
"They will become delusions in the minds of human beings, fears where there is nothing to fear, desires for vain, hurtful things, despairing thoughts where there is no reason to despair." 
"All of us?" Asked Atreyu in horror.

"No," saidGmork,  "there will be many kinds of delusion. According to what you are here, ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever, you will become ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever lies." 
"What about me?" Atreyu asked. "What will I be?" 
Gmork face grinned. 
"I won't tell you that. You'll see. Or rather, you won't see, because you will be yourself anymore." 
Atreyu stared at the werewolf with wide-open eyes. 
Gmork went on:
"That's why humans hate Fantastica and everything that comes from here. They want to destroy it. And they don't realize bit that by trying to destroy it they simply multiply the lies that keep flooding the human world. For these lies are nothing other than the creatures of Fantastica who have ceased to be themselves and survive only as living corpses, poisoning the souls of men with their fetid smell. But humans don't know it. Isn't that a good joke?" 
"And there's no one left in the human world," Atreyu asked in a whisper, "who doesn't hate and fear us?" 
"I did know of none," said the Gmork. "And it's not surprising, because you yourself, once you're there, can't help working to make humans believe that Fantastica doesn't exist." 
. . . . [Gmork continues]: 
"When it comes to controlling human beings there's no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. Beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. That's why sided with the powerful and served them – because I wanted to share their power." 
"I want no part of it!" Atreyu cried out. 
"Take it easy, you little fool," the werewolf growled. "When your turn comes to jump into the Nothing, you too will be a nameless servant of power, with no end of your own. Who knows what use they will make of you? Maybe you'll help them persuade people to buy things they don't need or hate things they they know nothing about, or hold beliefs to make them easy to handle, or doubt the truth that might save them. Yes, you little Fantasticans, big things will be done in the human world with your help, wars started, empires founded . . . " 
For time to Gmork appeared at the boy out of half closed eyes. 
Then he added: 
"The human world is full of weak minded people, who think there as clever us can be and are convinced that it's terribly important persuade even the children that Fantastica doesn't exist. Maybe they will be able to make good use of you." 
172-174.
Okay, enough of your bedtime story. Sweet dreams! 

St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle by Karen Armstrong

28672094Karen Armstrong is among my favorite writers on the topic of religion, and this book only adds to my admiration. Armstrong is not a Biblical scholar nor an academic student of religion, but she’s someone who’s dived deeply into religious traditions and who brings her findings and observations back to the rest of us through thoughtful, carefully researched, and considered books. This book only adds to my admiration for her work.

Armstrong is no stranger to challenging topics: the monotheistic tradition from its Judaic origins to the present (A History of God), Buddha, Mohammed, the Bible, the Axial Age, and religion and violence. But still, St. Paul can present a unique challenge. As Armstrong reports at the beginning of this book, she’d tackled the subject of St. Paul early in her career as a journalist and student of religion. She began that project, undertaken in the late 1970s, with the assumption that Paul took Christianity in a wrong direction, away from the legacy of Jesus. But as she learned more about this enigmatic and fascinating man (although in some ways we know little about him), she changed her opinion. Thus in 1983, she published The First Christian about Paul, whom she initially thought of as the source of misogyny, authoritarianism, and anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition. She reports that she changed her perception in the course of producing that book (and accompanying television series). This work, published in 2015, updates her quest to come to grips with this “misunderstood apostle.”

No one can doubt Paul’s influence. Indeed, I remember some years ago seeing a poll of scholars about the most influential persons in the Western tradition. In that poll, to my surprise at the time, some of the respondents rated Paul’s influence as greater than that of Jesus. I was shocked, but the explanation provided was that without Paul, the nascent tradition surrounding Jesus would have remained within the existing tent of Judaism. Paul, the Pharisee turned apostle after his vision on the road to Damascus, brought the “Good News” to the Gentiles. Paul's ministry caused chagrin to the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus, who intended to remain within the Judaic tradition, or who at least would have required Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish law and custom.


Another intriguing aspect of Paul’s story is the fact that his letters are the oldest documents to be included in the New Testament canon. (Aand I do mean his letters because some letters were later attributed to him by tradition.) Armstrong undertakes a vital project for her readers, in working to separate out what are certainly authentic Pauline letters and words from those later (inaccurately) attributed to him. Also, his authentic letters, epistles, were scrambled in what came to be the official versions, sometimes mixing letters and dates and subjects. Also, later editors would occasionally interject their own words. The Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, comes after Paul’s letters and provides a different (and not especially accurate) account of Paul’s mission. In fact, some of the most controversial (by contemporary standards) passages in Paul’s letters are later interpolations, such as the injunction for wives to be submissive to their husbands, or (maybe) his injunction to defer to the political authorities. (However, Paul, like Jesus and other earlier followers, believed the end times were imminent, and therefore any injunctions were for a transitory period.) Armstrong notes that Paul’s real value was in his proclamation of the Good News to those outside of the Judaic tradition (although Paul was very much a part of that tradition and was never anti-Jewish). Paul's injunctions about love, justice, and equality became fundamental (if all too often ignored) aspects of the Jesus Movement and then Christianity. 

Even misreadings of Paul, such as those of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, have shaped the course of Christianity. How Christians understand, appreciate, and use the legacy of St. Paul remains as vital as ever to the Christian tradition, and Karen Armstrong provides a trustworthy guide to continuing that quest.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

History & Prophecy
Tim Snyder, professor of history at Yale who specializes in modern East European history, has emerged as a leader in the resistance to the threat to democracy posed by the election of Trump. This book reveals why Snyder might have such committed and informed opinions about our current situation. The story of East Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is one of radical anti-Semitism (and the persecution and elimination of other groups) followed by state destruction by both Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes. The chaos that followed state destruction allowed the Holocaust to evolve into the mass murder that it became. The Holocaust is a familiar story, but it’s one that Snyder brings further insight to.

At the beginning of the book, Snyder addresses Hitler’s ideology. Hitler was an extreme and rabid anti-Semite, and he wanted “Lebensraum” (living room) for the German people. Snyder argues that Hitler’s concern with Lebensraum is not merely a matter of grabbing more land for Germany (although it certainly entailed that), but it also referenced a standard of living that looked to the U.S. for its inspiration. Hitler was infatuated with the problem of a Malthusian trap and the hunger and deprivation that Germany suffered in the First World War. To offset these fears, Hitler saw the Slavic and Jewish lands to the east as the equivalent of the American West, which was taken by force from what the white the white settlers considered as the ignorant and expendable natives. What Hitler intended and what his beliefs about Jews and Slavs would entail were not hidden.

Snyder also reports on how the Polish government tried to address the “Jewish problem” by helping to arm and train fighters to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine. But the Polish state was caught between the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as a functioning state, it disappeared in the joint onslaught that immediately followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that secretly divided Poland and the Baltic states between the USSR and Germany. The destruction of the Polish state also ended the most effective state advocacy for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.

One of Snyder’s most arresting insights comes from his description of how the destruction of states by one side and then the other (after Hitler invaded the USSR) facilitated and encouraged the Holocaust. Snyder notes that Jews in these twice-invaded lands perished at extremely high rates, while those who lived where states (which entail bureaucracies) remained intact survived at much higher rates, even in Germany. The double-destruction created a moral and practical anarchy that stripped individuals of legal rights and their basic humanity, and that allowed the criminality of the Nazi regime to act unchecked by any rival authority. Snyder shares some stories of survival and those heroic few who saved others, but the offset against the truly staggering death tolls doesn’t create a balance, just a crack of light shining through a crushing avalanche of human depravity.

Historian & prophet
Snyder’s account summarized above makes for fascinating reading. The history of ideology, diplomacy, and criminality by states (Nazi and Soviet) and individuals is deeply engaging and troubling enough. But it is in his concluding chapter that Snyder goes beyond the role of historian to that of a political and practical thinker. In his concluding chapter, Snyder contemplates how our times share characteristics with those of this truly awful period in human history. Snyder writes:

There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in the broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and open the way to an unprecedented crime. (320-321).

Snyder explains:
By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planet, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization. The only sound ecology was to eliminate a political enemy; the only sound politics was to purify the earth.” (321). (This refers to Snyder’s initial consideration of Hitler’s ideology; the use of “ecology” is an anachronism but a quite appropriate one.) Snyder goes on to note that “the course of the war on the eastern front created two fundamental political opportunities. At first, the zoological portrayal of Slavs justified the elimination of their polities, creating the zones where the Holocaust could become possible. (323).
 . . . . 
Just as Hitler’s world view conflated science and politics, his program confused biology with desire. The concept of Lebensraum unified need with want, murder with convenience. It implied a plan to restore the planet by mass murder and a promise of a better life for German families. Since 1945, one of the two senses of Lebensraum have spread across most of the world; a living room, the dream of household comfort in a consumer society. The other sense of Lebensraum is habitat, the realm that must be controlled for physical survival, inhabited perhaps temporarily by people characterized as not quite fully human. In uniting these two passions in one word, Hitler conflated lifestyle with life. For the vision of a well-stocked cupboard people should endorse the bloody struggle for other peoples’ land.  Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war on those who are poorer in the name of survival. Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the American dream in a globalized world. (324).

Reflect on this as you consider world population growth, the rise of demand for food and other goods by China and India and other developing nations, and our (American) attachment to material prosperity. Consider also this:

Hitler the thinker was wrong that politics and science are the same thing. Hitler the politician was right that conflating them creates a rapturous sense of the catastrophic time and thus the potential for radical action. (325).
 
Does this sound like any contemporary politicians? I think that it reminds Snyder (and me) of some. 
The similarities between now and then (the 1930s and 1940s) arise foremost from globalization. Snyder writes: “Hitler was a child of the first globalization, which arose under the imperial auspices at the end of the nineteenth century. We are the children of the second, that of the late twentieth century. Globalization is neither a problem nor a solution; it is a condition with a history.” (326). It promotes thinking—for good or ill—on a planetary scale. And when a “global order collapses, as was the experience of many Europeans in the second, third, and fourth decades of the twentieth century, a simplistic diagnosis such as Hitler’s can seem to clarify the global by referring to the ecological, the supernatural, or the conspiratorial.” (327).
In the past 25 years of so, we’ve experienced new collapses of order, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for instance, where virulent, fearful ideologies team with economic and ecological precariousness to unleash new genocides. As pressures continue, especially in light of continued climate change and world population growth, we’ll continue to see these problems pop-up as they do in daily headlines. Hitler used bad science to foresee a bleak future, not appreciating the Green Revolution ahead, but we don’t’ know if we have further Green Revolutions available. And we have grave reasons to doubt that the fortuitous climate that civilizations have come to depend upon will continue in light of continued human activities that alter the climate.
A closing thought from Snyder:
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise course. Time supports thought; thought supports time; structure supports plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can complete with visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth. But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and polities, order and freedom, past and
future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as an image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but it handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labor of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity, and survival. (342).

To which I say, “Amen,” let it be so.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In Defense of History by Richard J. Evans

It’s not often that I read a book that’s written by a character in a movie, but I did so when I read Sir Richard Evans’s In Defense of History (1998). Sir Richard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, is no swashbuckling character.  He was portrayed the movie Denial (my review) about the libel trial of Irving v. Lipstadt in which he served as an expert witness for Lipstadt as she proved the truth of the Holocaust against the falsehood of Irving’s denialism. Evans is an expert on modern German history, and he wrote a three-volume history of the Third Reich. But in this book, he’s not writing history; he’s writing about history.

The lineage of this undertaking is a long and venerable one. Evans notes predecessors like E.H. Carr (What is History?) and Sir Geoffrey Elton, among others, and he mentions Collingwood only in passing and not in a flattering way. But Evans’s primary project in this book isn’t to argue with his well-known predecessors, but with his contemporizes, especially those who fly the flag of postmodernism. But in doing so, Evans isn’t out to pull them down so much as to pull them back. Evans, like other critics of postmodernism (Ken Wilber pops to mind), do not argue that they’re all wrong, but that they take some fundamental insights and run them to an extreme that collapses under the weight of logic. Postmodernism and relativism (of which postmodernism is the current incarnation) collapse in a performative contradiction when it’s insights are pushed to their logical conclusions. But Evans is not acting like an old curmudgeon here. In fact, he welcomes many of the insights provided by postmodernism and other innovative approaches to history, including its subject-matter, its way of investigating and knowing the past, and how history is written.


I’ll keep my review short, as many on Goodreads have shared the same insights. But before closing, this book deserves a place alongside the works of E.H. Carr and Sir Geoffrey Elton, and yes, even R.G. Collingwood, Evans’s ill-considered dis notwithstanding. It’s a thorough and persuasive appraisal of the historical profession and what it can hope to achieve, and it’s an excellent guide to (relatively) contemporary thinking about history. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 is an outstanding history of a time of immensely influential but not necessarily obvious decisions made by dictatorships and democracies. There are many dangers in the study and writing of history, such as navigating the risk of hindsight bias—of course, someone acted in such and such a way because of this and that reason compelled the decision. We better understand the reasons and compulsions that affected the decision-makers because we know how the decisions turned out and we can know the simultaneous acts of others that affect the outcome. On the other hand, when titanic forces are on the move, the importance—even the reality—of individual decisions can become mere chimeras in comparison to the great impersonal forces that shape the course of events. Kershaw’s book shows how historians can understand and appreciate the decisions of actors in the face of profound change and uncertainty. Individual decisions do make a difference, although all human decisions are constrained. The constraints may arise from within the individual, such as his [sic] values, goals, and beliefs (true and false); from the effects of other actors in a strategic game; or from the effects of Nature’s whims. The historian—and I think I’m following Collingwood here, as I believe Kershaw implicitly does—must “re-enact” (Collingwood’s term) the thoughts (and perceptions) of the actors as they sought to act in their worlds. Of course, such as undertaking of “re-enactment” is at best partial and incomplete. Any representation of reality, no matter how concurrent it may be, must always result in “reality-lite” in any re-telling. Yet, despite the limitations, some efforts are more successful, more edifying, that others and Kershaw’s work fits this description.

The ten decisions that Kershaw addresses were momentous and did change the course of history (if we can say that history has a course; perhaps we should say that it unfolds willy-nilly like the weather—somewhat predictable only in the shortest run). For instance, Kershaw opens with the decision of the British cabinet to continue the war against Hitler even as France is falling. Here, of course, we see the importance of a single individual, Winston Churchill, who has only just assumed the post of Prime Minister. Under the lead of Lord Halifax, the British contemplated cutting a deal with Hitler that some hoped would preserve the Empire and guaranty of freedom of the seas for them. Indeed, Hitler hoped that Britain would take just such a course. In this account—also brilliantly relayed in John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940—Kershaw reveals the uncertainty, yet underlying value, of the reasoned arguments required by the British parliamentary democracy. In contrast, for instance, consider another decision that Kershaw recounts: that of Stalin to ignore the numerous sources that warned him of Hitler’s impending attack. Stalin’s refusal to act on the warnings he received allowed the Soviet Union to come perilously close to falling in the face German onslaught. (The fascinating question is what combination of wishful thinking, outright denial, or strategic miscalculation (Stalin thought Hitler wouldn’t dare open a second front with the British fighting on) took place in Stalin’s mind, but Kershaw is not, nor is any historian, a mind-reader.)

Kershaw also includes chapters on the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor and engage the U.S. in a war in the Pacific; Mussolini’s reckless and ill-fated decision to enter actively into the war; and the evolution of the Final Solution from the circumstances of the conquest of Eastern Europe with its huge Jewish population. For Americans, Kershaw details Roosevelt’s decisions to come—slowly, hesitantly—to Britain’s aid, and then his eventual decision to risk war in the North Atlantic by engaging German U-boats. In another chapter, Hitler, a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, declares war on the U.S., relieving Roosevelt from the need to make a case for a war in both Europe and the Pacific. Kershaw details the rationality of this decision that might, at first glance, seem quite irrational.


Whether one is a student of WWII history (as I am) or just an occasional history reader, this is a first-class work of history that will entertain (well, if you like narratives of political decisions) and instruct. We all see through a glass darkly, but some put on darker glasses than others. Kershaw helps us see more clearly. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I've done it. I think I've surpassed my record. It was a long haul, but I'm glad I did it.

I finished the audio book of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (Constance Garnett translation).  In doing so, I believe that I broke my previous audiobook record for length by having listened to all of Moby Dick by audio. By the way, the duration of the reading clocks in at just over 34 hours. (My secret was listening to it as I commuted to work, which varied from 25 to about 40 minutes each way.)

I'd only read some short pieces and Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky before undertaking this his last--and perhaps greatest--novel. But I did not go into without some preconceptions, which I found reinforced early in my listening. My first source of preconceptions:



Yes, there is a great deal of this (and other parts of Woody Allen's Love and Death--a favorite of ours) in this book. At some point early on, I did ask myself whether Katerina Ivanova and Grushenka were worth all of the fuss and the sometimes melodramatic dialogue. But in the end, it proves worthwhile, although it can try the patience in portions.

The other preconception comes from having read and then watched this story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov: the story of "The Grand Inquisitor." Below is a dramatization of it performed by the incomparable John Gielgud, whose sonorous voice is a joy to experience as he lays out this fundamental and chilling insight.



I won't go deeper into the novel here. It's a long and complex story, which includes, I might add, a trial section that's quite worthwhile.

The reader in this version is the late Frederick Davidson, a Brit who performed all of the characters with British accents, for instance, assigning peasants cockney accents. In the beginning, I found this quite annoying. To me, I was already listening to a foreign accent, so why not a Slavic English accent? If I were to choose again, I would have made this switch, but it didn't matter so much in the end.

This is a great book.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Open Letter to Senators Grassley & Ernst to Urge Appointment of a Special Prosecutor













10 May 2017

Hon. Charles Grassley, U.S. Senate, Iowa
Hon. Joni Ernst, U.S. Senate, Iowa

Dear Senators:

I want to join your Republican colleagues Senators McCain and Burr who are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the issue of whether the Trump campaign and administration has had any illegal or compromising contacts with Russian interests. I know that the Senate has a committee investigating these matters chaired by Senator Burr, but with the firing of FBI Director Comey, I have no faith that any successor will have the credibility to fully and fairly pursue this vital investigation.

Senator Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the longest-serving senators, I call on you, in particular, to speak out openly and directly on this issue. The White House should hear from you in no uncertain terms that the appointment of a special prosecutor is necessary to making sure that these matters are fairly and completely resolved. I trust that you share my deep concern for the integrity of our legal system. I've been an Iowa lawyer even longer than you've been a U.S. senator, and I shudder to see the compromise of our constitutional system and a weakening of the faith of the people in that system that the Comey firing creates. This wound to the justice and national security systems is a grave threat to our Republic. I urge you to act and become a leader of this cause.

Senator Ernst, there's no time like the present to stand up for the indispensable American value of the rule of law. Leadership goes to those who display it, not those who play it safe to please party or to pander to some voters.

Senators, we look to you to stand up for our values.

Thank you for your consideration.


Stephen N. Greenleaf


Monday, May 1, 2017

Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists by Gary Lachman

A collection of biographical essays
Gary Lachman’s collection of biographical essays, Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (2014) gathers together short pieces that he’s written over the course of 20 years of as a professional writer in the field of (for lack of a better term) “alternative thinking.” One might wonder about the connecting thread between the subjects of these essays (and Lachman’s project as a whole), but if you have any doubt, he provides an enlightening self-description in his introduction:

What the reader of this collection, and perhaps of my other books, will discover is that I am in love and obsessed with ideas. I like to think. It is, admittedly, an occupation not as popular as in some earlier times and one that requires the increasingly elusive necessities of peace and quiet, along with the more accessible ingredients of a book, notebook, table, and pen, or, more frequently today, laptop. . .. Thinkers are rather like those people at the head of a jungle expedition, hacking into a thick tangle of roots and vines in order to make a path. It is demanding, unpleasant work, but it needs to be done, and it must be admitted that the people further back on the trail have a relatively easier time of it.

Lachman, Gary. Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (Kindle Locations 111-119). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.


Lachman, following the example of his friend and mentor, Colin Wilson (the subject of the first essay in the collection), excels at capturing and relaying the ideas and stories of the varied cast represented here. After introducing us to Wilson’s thought (or at least a slice of it, for Wilson was a prolific writer), Lachman takes us back in time to look at the work of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg, as I read about him here, reminded me of other multi-talented geniuses of the early modern era, like Leibniz and Newton, to name two the most famous of that era’s genius polymaths. (Although Swedenborg, so far as I know, had no hand in inventing the calculus.) And Newton’s interest in alchemy notwithstanding, Swedenborg had a unique talent: he saw complex visions of heaven and hell. Regardless of what one thinks about the ontological basis of these visions (more on this topic later), his visions and ideas had some far-reaching influence. Included among those affected by his works were Blake, Emerson, and the father of William and Henry James.

Another scientist-turned visionary discussed by Lachman is Rudolf Steiner. To the extent Steiner is known today, it’s probably as the founder of Steiner (a/k/a Waldorf) schools. But before becoming a visionary of other worlds and realms, as well as a practical purveyor of ideas about philosophy, education, and agriculture, Steiner was a biologist and a Goethe scholar. As with Swedenborg, I find the combination of a high degree of scientific training and practice an intriguing and puzzling contrast—or compliment? —to their etheric visions. The same could be said of Carl Jung, another subject here, who was a trained physician as well as one exposed to the occult (spirit world) at a young age and who tried to understand humanity through depth psychology. But he seems to have kept hidden a predilection for the occult for most of his career that affected his beliefs and judgments.

A wide array of figures included here are those who delved into occult visions and magic. From little-known figures (to me anyway) to rather famous ones like Madame Blavatsky and Manly Palmer Hall (American), this group can be seen as a whole to have mined past traditions (e.g., Ancient Egypt, and the “mysterious East”) to shape into ideas and practices that reach far outside everyday reality. Hidden “masters,” incantations, fantastic visions, and ancient doctrines and practices mark this group. Taken as a whole, this group provides the most colorful life stories, some appearing as charlatans and at other times having been duped by charlatans. But in other contexts, they are (literally) revolutionaries (Madame B for example). But whether we consider them simply as a rogue’s gallery or as perhaps a combination of extraordinary talents blessed with a sense of showmanship, many of them were quite personally adventuresome and amazing in the experiences. Whatever we may think of their work as passed down to posterity (all of these figures published works), they provide fascinating lives and works upon which to reflect further. (Lachman has published biographies of several of the individuals that I look forward to reading.)

The last group to cover is one that I label the “philosophers.” None of them are mainstream, but their claims to notoriety come from the ideas that they left us much more than any claim to personal powers or special insights. In this group, I’d include Ouspensky, Julius Evola, Jean Gebser, and Owen Barfield. Evola, dubbed “Mussolini’s Mystic” by Lachman for the chapter devoted to him, is of topical interest now because Steve Bannon, President Trump’s aide, has professed adherence to Evola’s work. It’s worth noting some Italian terrorists in the 1980’s as well as some of Mussolini’s supporters were also admirers. While I reject Evola’s praise of violence (which comes across like that of George Sorel and Frantz Fanon), some have suggested (including Lachman), that Evola nevertheless expresses a serious critique of Modernity. (And Modernity is either the key to our freedom or a hell that we’ve created for ourselves; I’m not sure which—or perhaps both.)  The Russian émigré Ouspensky had many original and challenging ideas published before becoming a student and then master of Gurdjieff’s “Third Way.” Jean Gebser is another fascinating figure with his theory the evolution of consciousness. His work has influenced the likes of William Irwin Thompson, Ken Wilber, and Georg Feuerstein. I’m one of those persons that Lachman refers to that have heard of Gebser but who’ve not plunged into his original work. Reading Lachman’s account reminds me (again) that Gebser's work should be on my list.

The final figure I’ll discuss here is my personal favorite, Owen Barfield. Compared to almost all of the other figures discussed in this book, Barfield’s life might seem the drabbest and his ideas the least spectacular—and perhaps that’s why he’s my favorite among all of these figures. Like me, Barfield was a practicing lawyer most of his adult life, albeit a reluctant one, having been called into the family business by necessity rather than desire. But Barfield’s life, while outwardly prosaic, still was one of extraordinary experiences. After serving in The Great War (WWI), Barfield attended Oxford, where he met C.S. “Jack” Lewis. Lewis credits Barfield for his conversion to Christianity. Through Lewis, Barfield met others at Oxford that would become “The Inklings,” a group that included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. Barfield wrote two books, Poetic Diction and History in English Words before taking up his legal career, and he was a disciple of Steiner’s Anthroposophy from an early age. After about a 30-year hiatus, Barfield returned to full-time writing and thinking with the publication of his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957) and later works. Barfield’s ideas about “original participation” and “final participation” have influenced historian John Lukacs and sparked the admiration of writers such as Saul Bellow, James Hillman, and Harold Bloom, to name but three. It is in this essay that Lachman engages most in his love of ideas and their power.

When we come to the end of this work we are in a better position to reflect upon what Lachman wrote in his introduction about the two predominate themes of his writing career:

One is human consciousness and its evolution, both in the individual and in the culture at large. Another is that mysterious world that seems to strangely parallel our familiar, everyday one, the world of the occult, the magical, the esoteric. As you might suspect, these two themes overlap and are intimately related.

Id. (Kindle Locations 122-124)

The first of his themes is one that I wholeheartedly share. How we have changed as a species and how we change in a lifetime are the two great issues we face in our individual lives and in our collective life as a species. Everything that you and I do is to change our consciousness—from answering a hunger pang with a bite to eat to sleeping to talking to someone—it’s all about changing our state of our consciousness. But over a longer term, it’s about changing what we know explicitly and implicitly—rationally and verbally, intuitively and imaginatively. We all have at some time experienced a metanoia, a change of our heart-mind, as the term is used in the New Testament. My individual path was first laid down through Christianity (Catholic practice and Protestant insights), but then supplemented and surpassed by Buddhism, ancient Western philosophy “as a way of life” (Pierre Hadot), and a variety other sources of wisdom from China and India as well as from more recent thinkers. And how this all plays out collectively is as well as individually is, to me, a fascinating and vital subject.

But I must say that the occult and magic leave me flat. My amalgamation of sources that I listed above tend toward what some might see as the quotidian and cautious, the mainstream. Despite hours of meditation, prayer, and silence, as well as exposure t0 ideas quite beyond the ordinary, I’ve never experienced any bells or whistles. Now I’d be the first to admit that this might be the result of my tone-deafness to such frequencies and that training might make a difference. I’m skeptical and agnostic as to occult realities and practices. I see myself as following the Buddha in taking the position that I don’t have to know who made the arrow or by whom it was shot or from where is was shot in order to act to alleviate the suffering that it causes. I just need to remove the damned arrow.

The other attitude I have I attribute to William James (and thus I demonstrate my American bona fides). I want to know the “cash value” of all of these varieties of seeing and experiencing the world. Of all of these practices and beliefs, which ones have, can, and should change the world? None of these actors (and some of them are quite intriguing actors) can claim to have influenced the world in a significant, continuing way? There is no one here with the stature of Napoleon, Disraeli, Hitler or Stalin, or Roosevelt. No one the stature of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Russell. No one the stature of Gandhi, Niebuhr, or Marx. Of course, the deeper question is whether any of the figures considered by Lachman should have the level of influence comparable to the figures I listed above. And, in fairness, while no one of Lachman’s subjects alone had a large effect, as he notes in his Introduction, the occult and esoteric collectively have influenced our culture and the course of history. Even as I write this, a potent mix of politics and esoteric beliefs challenge the status quo.
The explorer-author


Thus, regardless of what skeptics like me might conclude about many of these figures, like human activity as a whole, they and the occult represent a part of who we are. The fact that we believe in all manner of things and act in all manner of ways is a part of why we take an interest in ourselves as a species, or more precisely, as a culture. These lives, these beliefs, whatever their reality (whatever that may mean or entail) is interesting nonetheless because of what it says about us. Is it simply that we humans are dumb and gullible? We have to go beyond that simplistic and unsatisfying conclusion to learn something deeper about ourselves. To this end, Gary Lachman provides us a great service by dedicating himself to exploring the boundaries of human consciousness and beliefs where most thinkers (especially academics) don’t dare go. It’s at the boundaries, the unexplored edges, that we learn something new. I know that I’ll keep following him there. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Denial: 2016 Movie Reviewed


While potentialities alone, without their actual expressions, cannot constitute historical evidence (this being one of the few correspondences between historical and legal evidence, at least in the Western world), the purposes of history and of law are different. The purpose of the law is to maintain justice by eliminating injustice; the purpose of history is to pursue truth by eliminating untruths. And the historian's recognition that reality encompasses actuality and potentiality reflect his propensity to see things with the eye of a novelist rather than the eye of a lawyer.  

John Lukacs, The Future of History, 124

But what happens when the law must adjudicate the facts of history, and in particular, the works of historians? Can the courts "do justice" to history?

The 2016 release of Denial, based on the book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah Lipstadt explores these issues and does so rather well. Because of the very significant difference in libel laws between the U.S. and U.K.--which has actually led to American courts not recognizing British libel judgments--Lipstadt was sued by British historian David Irving for libel in London, not in the U.S., where the book was first published and where Lipstadt taught at Emory University. The account is well told, and I read that screenwriter David Hare stuck to the trial transcript in the courtroom scenes, which struck me as realistic (although different from an American courtroom). 

Some of the interactions seemed contrived. Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, comes across as naive at some points. Part of the dramatic conflict in the film comes from Lipstadt's individualist attitude and willingness to engage in public battle versus the team approach of her British solicitors and barristers and their emphasis on pursuing a winning trial strategy. Some of the issues that come up seem realistic, but arise relatively late in the proceedings and display a surprising naivete on the part of Lipstadt. (I just purchased Lipstadt's book for $1.99 on my Kindle, now re-titled Denial for the movie tie-in, and I'll let you know if that portrayal is accurate according to her.) 

Two themes that the movie touched upon--and most movies can only "touch upon" and not fully address complex themes--concern "giving a voice to the victims" and the importance of truth in the trial process. As to giving voice to victims, this is a continual challenge in many court cases, especially  those that involve serious harm or death to loved ones. For instance, a criminal trial is about the guilt or innocence of the accused, not the nature of the harm committed (although prosecutors try to work it in and it no doubt does come into play). As the lawyers tell Lipstadt in the movie, the trial is not for therapy nor for giving voice to victims, it's about defending her and her publisher from a judgment for libel. Harsh but true. 

The other issue goes to the truth. The nature of truth, the challenge of proving the truth (which fell upon Lipstadt and her lawyers and not upon her accuser), and the importance of truth. If these issues do not resonate with you, you are not awake to the world in which we live. 



Saturday, April 1, 2017

After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith by Judith Shklar

Judith Shklar: 

The state of the world today encourages the growth of unhappy consciousness. It is now the most prevalent of all intellectual conditions, and the one to which the most imaginative and subtle spirits are drawn. And who is to say that they are "wrong"? To be sure, they can offer no coherent account of nature, man, history, or society. They do not even try, for the defeat of the spirit lies in just this: that everything has become incomprehensible. But, then, the strange as this of “the world" is constantly pressed upon us. The romanticism of defeat is the simple submission to the "otherness" of nature and society. All that the unhappy consciousness can do now is preserve its own integrity against the encroachments of a hostile world. Its shortcomings, both practical and intellectual, are obvious enough, but one question remains. Is anything else possible?  163

This edition costs $36.99. Mine cost $2.95. Those were the days my friend!

One of the fun things about having a lot of books (and I do) is that you are subject to a degree of serendipity when you choose one, having so many that I’ve not yet read. Also, many of my books are packed in a hot, dark, crowded storage unit which I can now access at best once a year, and even then with a limited amount of time to ponder selections of what to pack to take to our next venue. So when I unpacked here in Bucharest, many of the selections came as a bit of a surprise. My goal was to grab a lot of my books on 20th-century European history (we had moved to Europe). I guess that it was with this in mind that I tossed in Judith Shklar’s After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (1957). I recalled the book because I read it before, in the fall of 1975. John Nelson assigned it for his class on “Contemporary Political Theory.” I’m not sure what I thought of it then, and enough time had passed that loved it or hated it, I would be like a new book to me. (I read a whole lot that semester, which is another story for another time.) Whatever I thought of it then, I can say now that I quite admire it.

Shklar’s aim is to explore the decline in political faith after the Enlightenment, which, roughly speaking, was right after the turn of the French Revolution into a blood bath that eventually brought Europe the figure of Napoleon. Of course, the Enlightenment had critiques before then, such as Rousseau, but the reaction to it reached full bloom after Rousseau and Napolean--each in his own way--critiqued it. So while the Enlightenment had great faith in the power of human reason, after the revolt against the Enlightenment, many elites began to doubt the ability of reason to construct a political system that capable of achieving its ends. While the Enlightenment movement was marked by optimism, intellectualism, and anarchism—in short, Reason—its heyday didn’t last long. Romanticism developed as a counter to Enlightenment, with individuality as its highest aim. But the movement was also marked by a sense of despair at the course of human events. Hegel dubbed this the “unhappy consciousness,” and he also provided us with the idea of the “alienated soul.” This trend continued throughout much of the 19th and into the 20th-century, with attitudes of pessimism and despair marking the work of many artists and thinkers. Some tried to buck the trend, but the list of prominent thinkers and artists who fit into these categories is a who’s who of leaders in thought and the arts. Of course, some tried to defy the trend, and as Shklar notes, because of these efforts, “today we have excessively intellectual poetry and philosophy that calls for more life.” (On the poetry end, try some Jorrie Graham is you don’t believe her.) Terms like “pessimism” and “fatalism,” “mass” and “crowd” come to the forefront of discourse. 


Romanticism cultivates an anti-politics that seeks to defy any social controls. Shklar argues that this morphs into the existentialism of Sartre and others like him: philosophical self-transcendence, historical despair, and aesthetic anarchism are existentialism’s inheritance from the “Romanticism of defeat.” Of course, in the political realm, nothing could prove less promising. As Shklar observes, “at first sight, nothing could seem less promising than an attempt to devise an ethic of isolated individuals.” She goes on: “[E]xistentialism has in its preoccupation with victimhood come to deny the reality of all those human relationships upon which systems of morality is explicitly or implicitly based.” (134) Although to be fair, this is much more true of Sartre than of Heidegger and some others associated with existentialism. (This shortcoming applies as well, I think, to a sympathetic critic and proponent of a more upbeat existentialism like Colin Wilson, who, so far as I can tell, seems to have largely ignored the social and political implications of our existential situation.)

Shklar also explores what she terms “Christian fatalism,” and those who developed “Christian social theory,” which, in short, holds that society and polity are failing because religion (specifically Christianity) has fallen out of favor in Europe (virtually all of the thinkers that she considers are European). But these thinkers provide thin fare, lacking any real explanatory power to back up their contentions. In the face of fascism and totalitarianism, merely alleging a decline of religious faith and practice doesn’t provide a satisfactory account. (She mentions Reinhold Niehbur briefly in a footnote, and I would have liked to have learned more about her perception of this work, which seems to me to go beyond that of the “Christian social theorists.”)

In all of this, even liberalism and socialism lose much of their drive. Shklar briefly discusses Tocqueville, Mill, and Acton, but on the whole, she doesn’t find much optimism in the liberal project, or the socialist alternative, either. (She is perceptive, however, in identifying the Mount Pelerin Society of Hayek, Friedman (Milton), et. al as a platform for promoting a traditional liberal politics and capitalism.) Her treatment of “conservative” liberalism is dated; when she writes this, Bill Buckley is just launching National Review, and of course, things have spun from that starting point in startling ways.

Shklar provides a description of liberalism that is worth pondering:
Liberalism is a political philosophy, romanticism is a Weltansuang, a state of mind which can adapt itself to the most divergent types of political thought. The basic problem of liberalism is the creation of an enlightened public opinion to secure civil rights of individuals and to encourage the spontaneous forces of order in society itself. It has nothing to say about defying convention, except to extend legal protection. The liberal sees the rights of individuals is based on justice or utility. The romantic makes a virtue of self-expression as an end in itself, and sees individuality as necessarily involving an opposition to prevailing social standards. The liberal fears majorities, because they may be too powerful to be just, and too ignorant to be wise. The romantic is revolted by their docility, their indifference to genius, their undistinguished emotional life. The liberal sees only the dangers of power abused. That the state may not interfere with society is a concept of an entirely different order than the idea of a man's first duty is to develop an original personality. Majority rule and minority rights are two central themes of political thought; the unique individual and his enemies, the masses, never enter its considerations. The romantic does not offer society anything but his defiance. Liberalism, on the other hand, attempts to regulate the relations of the individual to society and the state, and of these two to each other, by law. 231-232.

In the end, Shklar seems a bit despairing, but her concluding words betray a sense of what thinking and acting politically should entail. (N.B. She published this work before her fellow Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt, published her groundbreaking re-thinking of the possibilities of political life, The Human Condition (1958), which takes a positive view of politics.) Shklar writes:
The fact is that a curious situation exists in which everyone talks about or around politics, but no one really cares – at least, no one is sufficiently concerned philosophically to be capable of renewing the traditional political theory. Yet everyone is perfectly aware that it is in the realm of political life that our present condition and future life are largely determined. Politics impinge upon every moment of our existence, and yet we are incapable of synthesizing our experience into a theoretical picture. It is not only the civic consciousness of the Enlightenment but the entire tradition of political theory that is it at a standstill. 269.… The fact is that intellectually there is no escaping politics. Romanticism is surely not political in its initial inspiration, yet ultimately it too is forced to concern itself with questions of politics, even if only to exploit or to bewail. Indeed, the disgust with omnipresent political activity is the greatest incentive to romanticism.


Yet, despite her bleak assessment, it seems to me that she closes on a faint note of optimism, or perhaps it’s just determination,  a sense that we can find our way out of this predicament, which, although written 60 years ago, rings all too familiar: 

The answer to the quasi-politics of despair would be a new justification of some form of politics as culturally valuable and intellectually necessary. Yet such a thing is beyond us, even after all the countless failings of Christian fatalism and romantic despair--the two most extreme expressions of much general opinion--have been demonstrated. . . .  Paradoxically the fact remains that many people could never be satisfied by despair or by gloomy contemplation of the apocalypse. To a great extent the success of these attitudes is due to the absence of a satisfactory secular social philosophy. 270-271.
 
 . . . . 
The grand tradition of political theory the began with Plato is, then, in abeyance. A reason skepticism is consequently the sanest attitude for the present. Even skepticism is politically sounder and empirically more justifiable than cultural despair and fatalism. For neither logic nor history is in accord with these, and this even when no happier philosophies flourish. 271-272. 

Shklar's work is, of course, a history and appraisal of the works of high art and intellect within a mostly European tradition. Against this trend, many others were moved with an optimism fueled by amazing technological changes and increasing wealth. And while some despised politics, others jumped head-long into the fray. Some came away jaded or disillusioned, but others, liberals, Marxists, and all manner of different philosophies and outlooks, did not sit on the sidelines and despair. Of course, some of those who were active became authoritarians, fascists, Leninists and Stalinists, and Nazis. And the "masses"? They went about their lives in the midst of all of this economic, technological, social, and political change, wondering how it worked, but primarily concerned with the immediate circumstances of their own well-being and that of their families. Thus, Shklar's story is only a part of the whole, but it's nonetheless important and well-told, and one that still resonates with the world around us today. 

Friday, March 24, 2017


John Lukacs: writer, historian, thinker--wise man. 

All history is revisionism of a kind. The revision of history is not--or, rather, ought not be--the monopoly of opportunists whose description of the past serves but their ephemeral interests of the present--their present; who are ever ready to twist or turn the record of the past in order to employ ideas that are intellectually fashionable. All history--indeed, all thinking--consists of rethinking of the past. That this constant revising of the past must rest on evidence is a truism. It is true: only it is not true enough. Historical evidence is one thinking; legal evidence is another. The ultimate purpose of the latter is justice; of the former, truth. Truth is not only a deeper, it is a greater matter than justice. The reservoir of historical evidence is potentially boundless. 

John Lukacs, The Last European War: September 1939--December 1941. p. ix

Global History & the Trends of Historical Study

Is global history still possible, or has it had its moment? – Jeremy Adelman | Aeon Essays

This interesting article prompted me to some reflections on the nature of history: 

1. History has a history. Most people tend to think of history as the story of wars, governments, leaders, and various adventures and big events. But all knowledge comes from the past. Everything we now experience comes to us from the past. Every topic has a genealogy. Thus, history as a discipline has changed through time. 

2. History has fashions. Don't rush out to a meeting of historians to get ideas how to dress; you'd end up embarrassed. Pros in NYC, Paris, and Milan are the place to go for clothes. The fashions that I'm speaking about here are intellectual, not a matter of raiment. Historians, like about every other discipline, are subject to in infatuation with the new and novel, to a new generation striving to find something different, unique from the work of their elders. 

3. Adelman's (and other "globalist's) interest in expanding the scope of history is valuable. Whether it's nations or groups that have not been as prominent on the world stage or who have suffered at the hands of others or those who simply have not come within the spotlight of history so far, plumbing this unexplored aspect of our past is a sound enterprise. Is each area of interest equal? Of course not. What is of interest, what is significant, is in the eye of the beholder. It's up to the beholder to convince others that a topic belongs in the spotlight. And opinions will vary between contemporaries and between generations. Some fashions will stand the test of time; others will fade to the side. Time sorts it out. 

4. The past is one humongous block of fixed events. We can never know the past wholly or finally. Just as our everyday reality must exclude most of the world that comes into our minds, so it is with history. We must sift through the records that the past leaves behind. For although the past is fixed--events of the past don't change--not all events leave a trace. Think of the bulk of your day and how little you recall of it and how little you miss that inability. As in one's life, we must decide what in history--our collective past--merits knowing and recalling. 

5. No one approach suffices to capture the past. There is no Rosetta stone of history. Neither world systems nor dialectical materialism nor the dialectic of master and slave nor any other theory that might be applied to history can be complete, can capture the whole. History, like reality, is too messy. 

6. What history can do is change its focus. The focus may be like a telescope searching deep into the past seeking to discover the most significant events, the historical equivalent of the birth of stars and galaxies. Or it can focus like a microscope on the minute details an event. No one focus can claim primacy. One can turn from Big History (that starts with the Big Bang) to the course of empires to five days in London in May 1940. All can be useful and fascinating. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen by Gary Lachman

History, but not "just" history



Before I get to this book, please indulge me while I engage in a couple of brief tangents that I will tie into the book review in due course. First, I hear people say something to the effect that “people shouldn’t bring religion into politics,” or “in America, our Constitution says we should keep religion and politics separate.” I find these statements well-intentioned and understandable, but nevertheless absurd. Religion and politics have been conjoined since humans conceived of each, and they have been intimate since the dawn of civilization (agriculture and cities). One can argue that as a part of the modern project these concerns should be separated, and in some measure, they address different domains. But they are overlapping Venn diagrams, each claiming a common territory. Religion, broadly conceived, is the stuff of ultimate concerns: how we relate to those powers greater than us (e.g., God, gods, Nature, the Dharma, the Tao, etc.) and how we relate to each other (morality broadly conceived). Politics often addresses the mundane: “Where should we put this road?” and “How much should we levy for taxes this year?” (I was a city attorney for three decades.) In short, the “who gets what, when, and how” of Harold Laswell. But politics also addresses fundamental issues of life and death, such as definitions and punishments for murder, the legality of abortion, declarations of war—the big issues. In short, politics entails both the sacred and the profane; it involves the ethical and the practical. Thus, I can’t imagine keeping religion and politics separate. It’s impossible. On the other hand, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ..”  In other words, what it requires is the separation of church and state, the respective institutions of religion and politics. The First Amendment prohibits the state from interfering in religious belief and practice, regardless of whether conducted within an institutional framework (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) or arising from the beliefs and practices of any one person. This constitutionally mandated separation of government from religion provides an essential safeguard for the individual, and it protects both religious institutions and government.  Entanglements of church and state create problems for churches and states. 

My next digression involves some post-election communications about Trump and Clinton. In short, one person with whom I had some contact argued that Trump deserved to win over Clinton because Clinton was in cahoots (my term, not his) with “the Illuminati,” such as George Soros. What? I, in my Enlightenment bubble, thought that such nonsense was something that I’d encounter only among the truly wigged-out. Not so. There isn’t a bubble out there; there are more bubbles than we can begin to count. I prefer mine (and I hope that it doesn’t create too distorting a lens), but we need to pop some of these others.

Having allowed myself these two digressions, let me turn to this book and explain why I found my digressions fitting in the circumstances. Gary Lachman’s Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (2008) is about the intersection of religion (or spirituality, if you prefer a wider net) and politics. However,  instead of the usual roster of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, he’s writing about those who inhabit the fringes of those religions and some who draw upon entirely different creeds. If Lachman had shared any jokes in this book, they wouldn’t have set up with a “priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar,” but “a magician, an adept, and a charlatan walk into a bar.” But unlike the mainstream set-up, where perhaps a Roman collar and a yarmulke would help us distinguish who is who among the mainstream three, among the three occult figures, you couldn’t know who is who from any first glimpse. (N.B. Don’t take this analogy too far; we can’t necessarily tell who is a charlatan in the occult group and only by process of elimination can we identify the minister in the first. Protestants can be so nondescript in public.) The occult has its roots in many of the mainstream traditions, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, in addition to other traditions (Gnosticism, Hermeticism, etc.), but by definition, the occult remains out of site and the esoteric reserved for the few. Lachman argues that the occult traditions became more secretive with the advent of the modern world when science and materialism (Newton’s interests notwithstanding) became the dominant ideology. With this tidal shift in culture, concerns about the soul, mind, and consciousness became suspect and began to migrate underground. Thus, the shadow side of religion becomes, even more, a matter of fear and fascination.

The list of occult groups identified and discussed by Lachman is impressive. From early modern times, we get the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati. All of these groups clothed themselves in secrecy, which, in addition to practical concerns about repression by ruling authorities, makes each organization more attractive to members (exclusiveness) and more fascinating to outsiders. Also, one can’t help but note that these groups seem to be populated by the elite, not simply (or even primarily) the aristocracy, but the educated elite as well. For instance, both Descartes and Leibniz are associated with the Rosicrucians. (An aside: isn’t Leibniz one of the most brilliant minds of all time?) The elite membership in these organizations certainly enhanced both their prestige and popular resentment of against them.

But how influential—or even powerful—were these early modern occult groups? In the end, the pyramid with the eye on the dollar bill and George Washington’s well-known Freemasonry membership notwithstanding, these groups were not that influential. If you want to gauge the thoughts and beliefs that guided the American Revolution and Founding, you’d do better to study Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Montesquieu, the Atlantic Republican tradition, and the English Whig tradition than  Freemasonry. Add the political economy of slavery (as sadly one must), and you have a strong sense of the thinking behind America’s political origins.  Occult organizations also had their fingerprints on the French Revolution, on both the Right and the Left (the time in which these terms emerged), but no group (occult or not) was in control completely or for long until Napolean put an end to the chaos. The ideas behind sea-change of the French Revolution have more to do with Voltaire and the philosophes and their arch-critic Rousseau than any occult dogma or action.

The intersection of the occult and the political continued into the 19th century. At the level of individuals and events, adherents to occult organizations and beliefs have a role, but in the more encompassing mix of culture and political beliefs, their effect is hard to discern. The ideas of Marx and Mill and mainstream religions and philosophies are the most influential. Of course, many small sectarian groups, both political and occult (and sometimes overlapping) populate history since the French Revolution. Zionists and anti-Semitic schemers, utopian socialists and free-love advocates, syndicalists and social welfare groups—experimenters (good and ill) of all types abound as society goes through continued upheavals. As Lachman notes, inquiries into the spiritual, the non-material, and consciousness preceded modernity (and are as old as human culture), but in times of great change and turbulence, these concerns become acuter and more widespread. And beginning in the late 18th century, the turmoil of politics, the wildfires of revolution, the conflagration of wars, imperialism and colonialism, along with changes in technology and culture, vastly increased the total wealth of Western nations and altered the composition of society while dramatically changing the culture. This level of change was—is—unprecedented in human history. But in contrast to the headlong changes in our lived environment, changes in shared consciousness, particularly at the deeper individual levels, seems to move at a much slower pace, taking the course of epochs, not months and years. Thus, to any extent that the occult or esoteric beliefs and practices might have had an effect would, by definition, be limited to an elite and could only disburse slowly through society. By contrast, changes in some religious practices can spread like wildfire through society, for instance, the changes of the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakening, to provide just two examples. Thus, whatever legitimate hopes initiates might hold in times of great change, the odds are against any significant influence—not to mention control—over events. Thus, for all of the aspiration, the influence of the occult and esoteric remains limited.

But despite the limited influence, the role of occult and esoteric thinkers remains intriguing. Within periods that I’m acquainted with, the footprints bear following. Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists were proponents of Indian independence at the beginning in the late 19th century. In Romania, the great scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, had sympathies with Romanian fascist and nationalist groups through the Second World War. Finally, at present, the president’s aide Stephen Bannon cites Julius Evola (along with Lenin) as an intellectual mentor. Evola was an Italian esoteric thinker and critic of modernity who promoted Italian fascism. Thus, while esoteric and occult thinkers certainly have not guided events nor have they been at the forefront of the intellectual currents shaping modern life, neither have their beliefs and personages been negligible. And contemplate this: you may conclude that Stephen Bannon is not the president and that his beliefs, no matter how seemingly fringe or outrageous, are of little consequence. But understand that the man he serves is marked by an extreme intellectual vacuity, and the contents of the House of Horrors that fill Bannon’s mind will undoubtedly—have undoubtedly—streamed in to fill that vacuum.

Before I conclude my review, I need to admit something. I feel a bit guilty about reviewing this book. The guilt comes from the fact that while reading it—and other books and articles by Lachman—I find myself mumbling “hum-hum," making an electronic note of a “yes” to a passage, and generally finding that his comments—never intrusive and or heavy-handed—reflect many of my beliefs and conclusions. I enjoyed this book, like the others, because he channels and expresses so many of my thoughts and perceptions. It’s reassuring the find someone who shares many of your viewpoints, but it may take the edge off of my criticism. If so, so be it; you’re forewarned. 

To illustrate this point, let me quote from his conclusion, where, as in the Introduction, Lachman allows himself to comment more extensively. In the “Last Words” he writes:

Clearly, for anyone who thinks life should be about something more than reality TV, celebrity gossip, and having the “F” word misspelled on your clothes, the secular Western world leaves much to be desired. I include myself in this group. Like many people, I find much about the modern world unappealing. It's for this reason that I find critics of it like Julius Evola and René Guénon [both “Traditionalists”] and others of their sensibilities disturbing—not because of Evola's obvious fascist sympathies or Guénon's elitist ethos, but because many of their criticisms hit the mark. Unless a more moderate rethinking of modernity comes up with something soon, the more extreme alternatives offered by Guénon and others like him will seem attractive. Notwithstanding Evola's repellent racist views, it's not surprising that some of his readers appreciated his belief that the only thing left was to “blow up” everything. Thankfully, the majority take this as a metaphor, and I'd bet that many of us feel something similar at times, although, again thankfully, we have the presence of mind not to succumb to this “purifying” release. To want to knock everything down and start anew has been a part of the human psyche for ages, probably from the beginning. It's a form of metaphysical impatience, and most spiritual practices are aimed at learning how to curb it. But no society or nation can practice Zen or any other discipline; only people can. So it's up to us to refrain from indulging in the delightful and stimulating exercise of smashing everything up.
Lachman, Gary. Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (p. 232). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.

While I’m not well enough acquainted with either Evola or Guenon to endorse their critiques of modernity, I appreciate the sentiment. (See my review of William Ophuls’s book Requiem for Modern Politics and my review of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary--also a Lachman favorite--for examples.) But as someone who’s trying to figure out how he can call himself a “Burkean revolutionary” (I’m still working out how I can transform this from a blatant oxymoron into a revealing paradox), I share Lachman’s appreciation of the critique and his desire not to destroy the world in order to perfect it. I didn’t think Donald Trump would be elected president because I didn’t believe enough American were willing to (even metaphorically) “blow up the system,” which Trump is attempting to do.

I also share Lachman’s conception of politics and political thinking:

Politics deals with the possible, not the ideal; it inhabits the messy world of becoming, not the stable world of being. Ideas from the world of being can inform the politics of becoming, but they cannot take its place, which means that as long as the world is the world, there will always be change. Attempts to force some ideal, whether it be right or left, into existence will fail, or success will come at such a cost that failure would have been preferable. While watching the collapse of his beloved Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, P. D. Ouspensky had deep insight into what he called “the impossibility of violence,” “the uselessness of violent means to attain no matter what.” “I saw with undoubted clarity,” Ouspensky wrote, “that violent means and methods in anything whatever would unfailingly produce negative results, that is to say, results opposed to those aims for which they were applied.” This, Ouspensky said, wasn't an ethical insight but a practical one. Violence simply doesn't work. History, I think, bears Ouspensky out. If humankind and society are going to become “better,” it's not going to happen overnight. As the I Ching counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” And that, as I say, takes patience.

Lachman continues:

            Given that the political world isn't an ideal one, if I was asked which I preferred, the modern world—which allows for shopping malls, dumbed-down culture, and consumer consciousness—or a variant of the spiritual authoritarian theocracies encountered in this book, I'd have to come down on the side of modernity. With Leszek Kolakowski, I'm conservative because I believe that there is much to conserve and that the new is not always better than the old. But with Ernst Bloch I'm a radical, because I believe in the promise of the new, the potential for something that doesn't yet exist to arrive. The challenge, of course, is how to combine the two until we find the Goldilocks-like state of having things “just right.”

Id.

To all of the above, I say “Amen.” Lachman is not only a knowledgeable guide in the field of the occult, the esoteric, and of consciousness studies, but he also proves himself a responsible thinker in the quotidian world of politics. To borrow from the candidates, “I approve this message.”  

One final point. In a year-end blog post, in addition to announcing a new book scheduled for publication this spring about the imagination (including more on Owen Barfield), Lachman announced the receipt of a new commission. He reports:

I’ve also just received a commission from my US publisher, Tarcher Penguin, now Tarcher Perigee, for Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. The book will look at the influence ‘mental science’ and ‘positive thinking’ has had on Trump’s rise to power, and will explore the links between the new ‘alt.right’ movement within the political far right and the political philosophy of the Italian esotericist Julius Evola. I will also look at the influence Alexandr Dugin, a radical political theorist influenced by Evola, ‘chaos magick’ and Martin Heidegger, has on the Russian President Vladimir Putin. In different ways both Trump and Putin seek to destabilize the west and reshape the political and economic map of Europe. With this in mind I will look at the possible connection – if any – between the European Union and a strange political philosophy that began in the late nineteenth century and according to some reports had a hidden but effective influence on European politics. This is what is known as Synarchy, the complete opposite of anarchy. Anarchy means no government; Synarchy means total government. I write about Synarchy in Politics and the Occult  and Dark Star Rising will pick up my account of the occult influence on modern politics from where I left it in 2008.
To borrow a term that I picked up from Lachman, I’m “chuffed” at this prospect. (I hope I’ve used that correctly.) I also hope that by the time of publication that it’s not as topical as it is at the moment, but I’m not banking on that. And even if we are so lucky, we’re going to be trying to discern what happened for some time, and Lachman is sure to provide fascinating insights into our unsettling course of events.