Monday, July 24, 2017

Two Essays on Colin Wilson: "World Rejection and Criminal Romantics" and "From the Outsider to Post-Tragic Man" by Gary Lachman

When your first encounter a book by Colin Wilson and begin to investigate what else he wrote, you can very quickly become intimidated by the number and scope of his works. After looking over his impressive body of work, you can find some recurring recurrent topics among the titles, but you’d have a long slog to find a common thread without a guide. In 2016, Gary Lachman published what I believe constitutes the definitive long-form (book length) guide to Wilson’s work, his biography of Wilson, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. But some might be intimidated by a book-length dive into Wilson. So, is there a work that allows one to dip one’s toe into the water, so to speak? In this case, I can recommend Lachman’s Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man.” The two essays date from 1994, thus pre-dating the end of Wilson’s career (as a writer he was truly prolific), but they still capture the essence of Wilson’s project.
Colin Wilson



The first essay plunges the reader into Wilson’s ideas about optimists and pessimists and how they arrive at their respective positions. The pessimistic view (‘world rejection’) gained the upper hand with the advent of the Romantic movement, and it has continued to maintain its prominence, especially in the artistic class. Of course, Wilson and Lachman can identify vital counter-examples (e.g., Nietzsche (his dourness and occasional vitriol notwithstanding), William James, and George Bernard Shaw), but many writers and artists in the 20th century tended toward ‘world rejection.' After discussing various viewpoints, Lachman makes the following point (referring to Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov)

The whole point of Wilson’s The Outsider [Wilson’s first book and the one that brought him widespread acclaim-sng] and practically all of his subsequent books is that any halfway sensitive consciousness is faced with this dilemma: which vision is true, Alyosha’s or Ivan’s? In a way it comes down to a variation on Pascal’s wager: if the universe is pointless and worth rejecting, then to act as if it isn’t, as if it is meaningful and worth affirming, is a mistake with no worse consequence than any action or belief in a meaningless universe. But to act as if it is meaningless and worth rejecting when it is indeed meaningful and worth affirming is to throw away the possibility of having the kind of experience that Alyosha does when he feels that his consciousness is linked to the stars, or Nietzsche when he felt “6,000 feet above man and time,” or the Steppenwolf’s vision of “Mozart and the stars,” and the other visions of meaning and affirmation that Wilson has catalogued throughout his enormous body of work.
The thing to be remembered is that the affirmative vision is not the outcome of a reasoned argument, although after it one can use reason to remind oneself of its reality. The affirmative vision always arrives unexpectedly, from some source in ourselves deeper than our conscious egos. 
Lachman, Gary. Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man” (Colin Wilson Studies Book 6) (Kindle Locations 148-157). Paupers' Press. Kindle Edition.
Gary Lachman
Throughout the remainder of the essay, Lachman continues to explicate on this fundamental theme, just as Wilson did throughout his lengthy career. Both Wilson and Lachman embrace the view that life is worth living and counter the arguments of the world rejecters, although both Wilson and Lachman eschew Pollyannaish views on the subject. It’s not that evil and suffering don’t exist, it’s that these realities don’t carry the day.

One of Wilson’s key insights is that one overcomes the abundant prompts toward pessimism by “peak experiences” (Maslow’s term; Wilson was an admirer, then friend and biographer of Maslow). Of course, the Romantics (the originals and their descendants) craved peak experiences and sought them, often by drugs and alcohol, but Maslow and Wilson both believed that peak experiences were not “gifts of the gods,” but how ordinary consciousness should work. Indeed, the “criminal” part of the essay, reflecting a part of Wilson’s investigation, is the fact that at least some criminal behavior is sparked by the need for thrill and adventure, as well as power. While greed and simple lack of self-control (e.g., alcohol consumption) are behind most crimes according to my 30 years of experience as a criminal defense lawyer, in some cases, the motive seems to have been the thrill of it all. (Two check-kiters (back in the day) pop into my mind; they loved to tell how played the game so well—for a while.) Wilson cites many instances of either actual and imagined debauchery pursued by artists to heighten and engage consciousness to the level of a peak experience. But whatever temporary high they achieve then dissolves and becomes merely an elusive vision of a paradise lost. Some writers, like “William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer” almost deify the criminal and debauched elements in their writings, as against, for instance, Shaw, who created characters who sought out the extraordinary and to achieve and aspire greatly. (Again, my 30 years of experience with “criminals” prevents me from giving any credence to romanticizing them; the overwhelming number of them were simply occasional screw-ups; some wise-guy blow-hards with a bit of luck; and the congenitally anti-social. I never mustered any admiration for my clients, although I hasten to add that I always treated them with dignity and respect.) Thus, Wilson-Lachman (it is hard to separate the thinking of the two within the context of these essays) don’t have to work very hard to convince me of the folly of the romancing the criminal, or of ‘world rejection’ in general. Yet, because these authors are still read and perhaps have some following (beyond English departments?), the exercise is a worthwhile one.

So, while some of the essay critiques the futile (and to me, frankly boring) worldviews espoused by the pessimists, the other part looks at the problem from the affirmative perspective. Lachman notes:

While the Criminal Romantics treat the symptoms of what Wilson calls ‘life-failure’ by throwing themselves into one adventure after another, Wilson addresses the source of the problem.
That source, ultimately, is consciousness itself. Two things, Wilson argues, are essential in understanding the problem of ‘affirmation consciousness’; one is the curious relation between the conscious and unconscious minds, the other is recognizing the fact that we are all in a state of what he calls ‘upside-downness’. Since Sigmund Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, the popular notion has been that the conscious mind is in a sub-ordinate relation to the unconscious. We are all, the common myth goes, driven by unconscious forces. There is a one-way relationship between the two; in computer-talk, the unconscious ‘downloads’ into the conscious mind, but not vice versa. With Freud this scenario is exceedingly dark, since for him the unconscious is a kind of cellar full of nasty business we’d rather not think about. In Jung the situation is better; for him the unconscious is not a dumping ground for ‘repressions’ but a creative, purposeful centre in the psyche. But still, in Jungian psychology, the unconscious calls the shots. 
If. 619-628.
Wilson posits that the opposite may be the case: that the active, conscious mind may affect the unconscious to our benefit. In other words, our conscious, intentional acts—our active mind—may be the vehicle of our well-being and not a passive, “leave-it-to-the-unconscious” attitude that depth psychology (Freud and Jung) suggests. It’s certainly more than just “think happy thoughts,” but does begin with “don’t focus on negative thoughts.” Some balance, some lines of communication, between the conscious and unconscious mind must be opened, and Wilson suggests (and Lachman agrees) that the conscious mind can have a much greater role in promoting this increased communication that all too many have heretofore believed.

In the second essay, “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man: Colin Wilson and the Case for Optimism” many of the same themes are further explored and developed. As Lachman explains in the opening paragraph:

Colin Wilson is a very good example of what Isaiah Berlin called a hedgehog, he who “knows one big thing.” Whether he is writing about the Düsseldorf sex murderer Peter Kürten or the Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Wilson’s subject is invariably the same, and has been so since his first book, The Outsider. For nearly forty years Wilson has been fascinated with the potentials of human consciousness and has produced under this rubric a massive and highly readable oeuvre on topics as diverse as existential philosophy, the occult, crime and the psychology of murder, literary criticism and sociology. In pursuit of his investigations, biographies of such dissimilar characters as Bernard Shaw, Wilhelm Reich and Grigory Rasputin have emerged from his pen, as well as many novels and much incidental writing. His output is unquestionably prodigious: at last reckoning the number of volumes from Wilson’s hand exceeds 100.

Id. 734-740.
Lachman’s opening comment that Wilson is a “hedgehog” according to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between thinkers as hedgehogs and foxes is a designation that wouldn’t on first blush attribute to Wilson, as I alluded in the opening of my review. His array of book topics, non-fiction and fiction, is astonishing, but Lachman is right: an overriding theme ties all of Wilson’s work together. Wilson is all about the potentials of human consciousness. As Lachman aptly puts it: “[W]hat is the “one big thing?” Put as briefly as possible, Wilson’s underlying theme is that questions of the meaning of human existence cannot be satisfactorily addressed without taking into account the intensity—or lack thereof—of human consciousness.” Id. 743-745. If like me, you perceive everything that we humans do as motivated by a desire to alter or sustain a particular state of consciousness, then you realize that Wilson must be right. Feeling sleepy? Then change to sleep consciousness (which has various levels as well). Hungry? Act to alleviate that uncomfortable state by eating. Bored? Turn on the television or attend to your smartphone (which may well lead to greater boredom, but it may distract you for a while. Horny? Well, you get the idea. Of course, my examples focus on basic needs and drives, but we can say the same about the need to create, to be inspired, to share emotions with a group, to feel the body in action, and so on. We constantly act to alter our state of consciousness. But not all courses of action are useful, and some are counter-productive to our (often ill-defined) intentions. I think that this is what Wilson (and Lachman) are getting at.

In the remainder of the essay, Lachman catalogs the developments of Wilson’s thought through his Outsider cycle (five books at the beginning of Wilson’s career). By the time he’d completed these books, Wilson had developed an alternative take on the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. A positive existentialism, if you will, is outlined in Wilson’s An Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966). In this work, Wilson pens his answer to Sartre, Camus, and others in their line of thinking. Husserl’s phenomenology and its emphasis on intentionality and Whitehead’s distinction between ‘causal efficacy’ and ‘presentational immediacy,’ are the main ingredients with which Wilson brews his ‘new existentialism.’

Lachman continues his explication to include the “St. Neot margin” (a peculiar phrase but based on a terrifically telling story told by Wilson that brings it alive), ‘life failure,’ ‘the robot,’ and ‘Faculty X.’ Each of these terms expands and clarifies Wilson’s essential insights. In fact, my notes and highlights go on at some length in the book from this point, but I’ll stop here because for the few dollars it will cost you to buy this and read it on your Kindle (or free Kindle software), you should. Just writing the review makes me want to go back and read the two essays again cover-to-cover. The team of Wilson and Lachman is a potent one and one that you can return to repeatedly for inspiration and insight. To me, this is high praise indeed.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Yes, he looks a bit like my dad, and he said this:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” “Is there no other way the world may live?”


I must admit it upfront: I like Ike. I’ve always liked Ike.

It might be in part because he was the first president I knew was in office. But more likely because my parents were “Eisenhower Republicans” (later referred to as “moderate Republicans,” an extinct species today). In fact, in the year before my birth, my prematurely bald father (only about 30 at the time) was outfitted with an Army uniform and played the role of Ike in a local Republican victory parade to celebrate Ike’s election in 1952. And, yes, my dad and Ike do bear a resemblance. Even over the intervening years when my political views have changed (for the better, of course), my admiration for Ike has held firm. After reading Smith’s fine biography, that opinion has been deepened, not dampened.

As historian Garry Wills put it, Ike was a political genius. “It is no mere accident that he remained, year after year, the most respected man in America.”

Before this I’d read the second volume of Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume biography, the second volume dealt with Ike’s presidency and post-presidency, and so this was a first extended exposure to Ike’s early life and military career. From this period, I learned from fascinating aspects of Ike’s life. For one, Ike had a reputation for luck, and luck certainly played a contributing role in his success. Also, he had mentors—General Fox Conner, General Pershing, and General George Marshall—who boosted his career at crucial times. But while luck and patronage certainly helped Ike along his path, he worked hard and grew in his assignments. He was never a combat commander in war time (at the fighting level), but he honed a variety of skills that made him indispensable. For instance, while working for General Fox Conner at a Panama Canal posting during the 1920s, he took advantage of the General’s extensive library to extend his knowledge of history and military affairs. While serving General Pershing in Paris, he learned a great deal about the French countryside. (Ike missed combat during WWI.) He also served under Douglas MacArthur in Washington, D.C. (during the sad conduct of MacArthur and the political leadership in its treatment of the Bonus Army), and Ike served again under MacArthur in the Philippines in the 1930s. (Reading about MacArthur in this book, I better understand why William Manchester’s biography of MacArthur was entitled American Caesar; he was a pompous, ambitious man. George Patton, Ike’s slightly older peer, was as gung-ho and sanguinary as the George C. Scott bio-pic portrayed him to be.) The most surprising thing about Ike was that in WWII, when he took direct control of field operations as the Allies prepared for the final push into Germany, proved wasn’t much of a military strategist. The British general Montgomery did a much better job of that, although, he, like MacArthur and Patton, was a prima donna. But when it came to the incredibly challenging task of keeping an international coalition functioning with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Charles DeGaulle to please, Ike was a miracle-worker.

While certainly ambitious, Ike remained an uncertain office-seeker. Former general Lucius Clay, along with New York lawyer Herbert Bromwell (later Ike’s Attorney General) and Thomas Dewey, were all needed to propel Ike into the presidency. Ike was uncertain, and he was probably wary of the dirt that might be slung at him. (He mistreated his predecessor Harry Truman, although Truman admired him, and unbeknownst to Ike on inauguration day—when Ike snubbed Truman—Truman has removed a very damaging letter from Ike’s army file that concerned Ike's relationship during WWII with Kay Summersby, his driver, aid, and lover.) But none of this came out, and the nation loved him, giving him a sound victory over the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

“Someday there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in [the Pentagon’s] estimates can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen to this country.”

After his election, Ike mostly left the choice of his cabinet to his chief advisors (listed above). It wasn’t that Ike was indifferent, but he delegated to subordinates and trusted them to take charge of what they could while leaving the final, big decision to him. Thus, they recommended Nixon as vice-president (as a sop to the Republican right that Ike—in the person of “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft—had defeated for the nomination.) He also accepted John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. Like Nixon, Dulles proved very un-Eisenhower-like. Dulles had a Manichean, Cold War mentality, while Nixon was a shifty—even then—political animal. But Ike managed both, along with a gung-ho military. I was shocked about how on various occasions Ike refused the advice of the military to use nuclear weapons. In fact, Eisenhower wanted peace and to limit the arms race. If there is one fact to take away about his Administration, it’s that after the Korean armistice in July 1953, no American troops were killed in combat during the remainder of his presidency. And he deployed troops overseas only once, in Lebanon, without loss of life and only for a limited duration (to counter Arab nationalist sentiment). He declined to try to deliver the French from their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, to attack the Chinese over islands around Formosa, to aid the British-French-Israeli coalition to take the Suez Canal from Egypt, or to actively intervene in the Hungarian uprising in 1956. 

On May 1 [1953], Robert Cutler, the president’s national security assistant, presented Eisenhower with the Joint Chiefs’ plan for Operation VULTURE [in Vietnam]. Ike dismissed it out of hand. “I certainly do not think that the atomic bomb can be used by the United States unilaterally,” he told Cutler. “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”

“I believe hostilities are not so imminent as is indicated by the forebodings of a number of my associates. I have so often been through these periods of strain that I have become accustomed to the fact that most of the calamities that we anticipate really never occur.”

This is not to say Ike’s judgment was flawless. Ike approved of covert activities in Guatemala and in Iran that deposed legitimate governments that were pursuing policies that didn’t endanger U.S. security, but that endangered U.S. and U.K. multinational corporations with financial interests. In the case of Iran, a line can be drawn from the U.S. role in deposing the Mossadegh government and imposing the Shah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought to power the current regime.

The GOP majority in the Eighty-third Congress seemed less interested in grappling with the problems of the day than in repudiating the work of Truman and Roosevelt. [Sound familiar?]

But in two other areas where some of criticized him, Eisenhower, Smith argues, called the right plays. Before becoming president and after his service in WWII, Eisenhower served as Columbia University’s president (a fine place, I’m told). And while Ike wasn’t very attuned to the academic world, he resisted those who wanted to limit free speech or engage in witch hunts. 

 “Don’t join the book burners,” he said. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend your own sense of decency. That should be the only censorship.… How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is?"

This attitude continued into his presidency. He declined to take McCarthy head-on, not wanting to give McCarthy a stage and not wanting to get into a brawl with a skunk. Although McCarthy and his fellow-traveling anti-Communist radicals (and cynics) did a lot of damage, McCarthy and his movement crashed as Ike had predicted. One could argue that a frontal attack was called for, but I think that Smith’s assessment makes sense. 

Ike always believed that if he had attacked McCarthy directly, the Senate would never have taken action. Later he wrote, “McCarthyism took its toll on many individuals and on the nation. No one was safe from charges recklessly made from inside the walls of congressional immunity.… Un-American activity cannot be prevented or routed out by employing un-American methods; to preserve freedom we must use the tools that freedom provides.”

Ditto with civil rights. Ike was not a crusader for civil rights (it was not an issue that he faced directly before becoming president), but Brown was decided on his watch after his appointment of Chief Justice (Earl Warren), and Ike would have none of the insubordination to the law that so many in the South were willing to pursue. His showdown with Arkansas governor Orville Faubus was a masterpiece of Eisenhower maneuvering and political skill, augmented by the 101st Airborne. In the end, Little Rock High was integrated.

Adam Clayton Powell—scarcely anyone’s Uncle Tom—put it best in a speech to his constituents on February 28, 1954. “The Honorable Dwight D. Eisenhower has done more to eliminate discrimination and to restore the Negro to the status of first-class citizenship than any President since Abraham Lincoln,” he said.

A few days before he left office, Ike addressed the nation in a farewell address, just as Washington had done after his two terms in office. The concerns of Eisenhower for peace and against militarism had not changed much. His words are worth noting at some length, as Smith does. Smith describes and quotes the address: 
“Our military organization bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime.” Until World War II, “the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could … make swords as well.” But now, because of the Cold War, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all United States corporations.” Eisenhower’s voice continued with somber intonation. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Then, in the most widely quoted passage, Ike said: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. 
Then, in a timeless warning for the future, Eisenhower said America “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” [Emphasis added.]
After learning a great deal more about this man—warts and all—I do so we wish we will soon have again a person serve as president who can provide the level of leadership, dignity, skill, and wisdom as did this man from Abilene, Kansas 

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.