Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Secret History of Consciousness by Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman: rocker turned serious author

I enjoy reading Gary Lachman. There are several reasons that I think explain this. First, were born only a few years apart so we grew up in the same general cultural milieu of the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, although he grew up in New Jersey as opposed my more culturally conservative small-town Iowa. He was brought up as a Catholic, although he walked away from the Church as a teenager. Finally, despite a very successful career as a Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame member of the band Blondie, he became interested in spiritual, esoteric, and metaphysical writings. Finally, after a lucky browse at a used bookstore in Berkley when I had some extra time there after a deposition, I, too, discovered Colin Wilson (Religion & the Rebel), whom Lachman admires. Since developing his interest in these topics, Lachman has transformed himself from a rocker into a formidable author on the subject of human consciousness and culture. I believe that he wears the mantel of successor to Colin Wilson, with whom he developed a friendship and from whom he received a forward to his book, A Secret History of Consciousness.

In this work, Lachman details the history of mystical, esoteric, and occult thought from the beginning of the 20th-century up to the near present. Not all of it the figures he discusses are by any means fringe. Early in the book, he addresses the works of Henri Bergson and William James, to name the most prominent philosophers in France and the US respectively at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, Alfred North Whitehead, although not receiving a full separate treatment, receives consideration.

But he mostly addresses those persons who remain on the fringe of accepted intellectual discourse and that provide the most interesting and perplexing examples. Among these characters are Gurdjieff, Ouspensky,  Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, and Jean Gebser, to name the most prominent. In addition, Lachman examines the work of various psychologists and lesser-known philosophers who delve into the farther reaches of the human mind and the more speculative aspects of reality. The common thread running through Lachman's work is his concern with consciousness. What is it? And how does it relate to matter? Perhaps the biggest distinction between those thinkers that Lachman discusses and those who are considered more mainstream is that Lachman's group maintains that consciousness receives primacy over matter.

One of the challenges in addressing a topic of this sort is to distinguish what appears to be delusional, fantastic, or absurd and what is deeply insightful. For instance, Gurdjieff (whom I've read a bit of and about) can at times seem deeply insightful. On the other hand, he has a theory of planetary influences that leaves me and many others baffled, if not disdainful. Similarly, Rudolf Steiner was, among other things, a Goethe scholar and a scientist, but he, too, promoted a theory of planetary influences and the existence of spiritual beings and records. Whether to consider these reports as the rantings of a madman or the symbols of the deeply creative artist, is hard to discern. But throughout the book, Lachman displays a wonderfully practical common sense and open-mindedness. In this work, Lachman serves as an accurate guide and reporter, and he sets aside some of these perplexing issues to report on what is most vital in these thinkers.

In addition to those I've already mentioned, Lachman reports at length on the work of Owen Barfield and Jean Gebser. I'm currently reading and thinking a lot about Barfield's work in and how it relates to (somewhat) more mainstream thinkers like philosopher R.G. Colllingwood and historian John Lukacs. I therefore appreciate Lachman’s concise and lucid exposition of Barfield’s main ideas. Gebser is a future project, but I know already that he has received accolades from the likes of William Irwin Thompson and Ken Wilber (as Lachman mentions). Both of these thinkers  have incorporated Gebser’s insights into their groundbreaking works. Again, Lachman serves as a reliable reporter on what is to be mined and valued in these works.

Lachman explores these thinkers as a man on a mission, attempting to develop his intuition that human consciousness is of the greatest importance in the universe and that we need to better understand it and use it for the benefit of all creation. Again, I keep coming back how impressed I am with his down-to-earth attitude in addressing these often ethereal topics. He doesn't go easily of for trendiness. For instance, I found myself in a complete agreement in his rather dim view of much of contemporary visual art. He also recognizes where people are likely to get hung up when delving into these thinkers.

I mentioned earlier, he is probably the rightful successor to the late Colin Wilson. Lachman devotes a couple of chapters in his book to Wilson's intellectual projects. Wilson was a chronicler of the fringe of acceptable thought and of bizarre (and often evil) human behavior, but he also formed theories and a philosophy that gave shape to these fringe ideas and events, which Lachman appreciates. In many ways,  Lachman's works further that enterprise.