Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dark Star Rising: Magick & Power in the Age of Trump by Gary Lachman

No collusion here, but revealing comparisons abound
Having become a fan of Gary Lachman’s work a few years ago, I’ve known that he’s had Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump in the works for some time. The time between his announcement of the project and his report that he’d sent the manuscript to the publisher was some months ago, so it’s been a long wait. As time passed my anticipation grew, and upon receiving the book I had to wonder whether the reality would match the level of my anticipation. The answer, I’m happy to report, is a resounding “Yes!”

I’d learned that Lachman would be exploring the complex of ideas that surround Putin’s regime in Russia, a daunting task given Russia’s cultural heritage that’s as tangled and enigmatic as a great Russian novel. Lachman delivers on this end of the story, but to my delight, he also shines his light upon the American side of this time of political turmoil. His consideration of American-as-apple-pie New Thought and its relation to Trump provides a valuable contribution to our understanding. How does one start with a train of thought that can claim greats like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James—two of the most significant and encouraging of American thinkers—and arrive at Donald Trump?

Also, Lachman provides readers with a new lens through which we can better perceive the Trump phenomena. I’d initially perceived Trump as a clown in the mold of Silviu Berlusconi (Italy’s former PM)—a wealthy philanderer out to massage his own ego and line his pockets while his boorish behavior and grandiose promises distract voters long enough to pick their pockets (which seems all too acceptable in Italy). Later, I came to see Trump as a full-scale demagogue, precisely the type of candidate that political thinkers from Plato to the American Founders (Hamilton and Madison in particular) warned us about and against whom the Founders designed the Constitution. (This blog post addresses both of the first two of my Trump images.)Later, in part as a reaction to Scott Adams’s “Trump is a master persuader and can do no wrong” refrain (my initial response that I now find inadequate). I came to see Trump as a master salesman, a huckster in the classic American mold of hucksters. Only he didn’t sell land in Florida or shares in the Brooklyn Bridge; instead, he sold worthless educational certificates from Trump University and stiffed contractors and investors. A friend of mine captured Trump’s essence by describing him as “a man of low cunning.” More recently, and to use a more contemporary vocabulary, both Max Boot and Tim Egan (and undoubtedly others) have described Trump as a grifter. (Slate has an interesting piece that distinguishes a “grifter” from a “grafter,” but we needn’t quibble.) But while all of these characterizations hold validity, they’re not completely satisfying. While money is a VERY BIG THING for Trump (as it is, less ostentatiously, for Putin, who’s now probably richer than Trump), money alone doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the Trump phenomena. Something more, something deeper is at play, and here’s where Lachman has provided us with a more revealing lens. Drawing on the writings of Colin Wilson that deal with “rogue messiahs” (gurus) and “Right Men” (those who cannot admit errors or flaws), Lachman establishes a strong connection between “gurus” and “demagogues.” When reflecting on the traits of gurus gone bad--most prove human, all too human--and demagogues like Trump or Putin, one discovers very similar traits.  Lachman follows this trail of traits to establish—for me at least—that Trump is not just not a normal politician (compromise, give-and-take, follows established norms), but a guru-demagogue in about every conceivable way. He's intolerant of criticism, lacks friends, prefers mass audiences of adulating fans, holds a simplistic worldview of “us versus them,” and so on. This trope of the bad guru fits as well as any . . . Well, except for one more perspective that Lachman provides us.

A more far-fetched, but most intriguing perspective, is to consider Trump a “tulpa,” (or ‘telly-tulpa”), a thought-form, an apparition (albeit one with some material reality) created by mental processes. Lachman draws the idea of a tulpa from Tibetan and magical lore. Whatever the empirical validity of such an entity, as a metaphor, it fits. From this, I can conjure a great opening for a piece about Trump: “A specter is haunting America, the specter of Donald Trump.” Catchy, don’t you think? Just keep in mind that this specter is not a friendly genie that will do our bidding and fulfill our wishes, but an evil jinn who seeks to entice us into our own imprisonment.

Lachman is a thorough, reliable guide through the under-explored and labyrinthian ways of experiencing the world that lie outside of the modern mainstream. Lachman has developed a solid reputation for exploring these less traveled by-ways, and this work proves no exception. And I must mention that Lachman approximates an ideal teacher. He informs his reader about ideas, events, and persons with a very light, unobtrusive touch. One must read carefully to get a sense of where his preferences and perspectives lie. He tosses off comments and asides that provide clues, but he’s never ponderous or pedantic. Only at the end of the book, as on the last day of class, does Lachman pull back the curtain and provide a direct statement of his perspective about what he’s shared. His peroration merits careful contemplation:

Exactly what guidelines we impose on our imaginations is, of course, a serious question . . . . But the very power involved suggests we should proceed with caution, as anyone of any seriousness would; only children play with matches. This does not mean timidly, but with care and an awareness of the responsibility involved. The future perhaps is not only in our hands, but in our minds, and the reality that awaits us in the time ahead may be germinating there now. Let us hope that when it arrives we will be equal to it and that it will bring clearer skies and brighter stars on the horizon. 
Lachman, Gary. Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (p. 192). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 As usual, I find myself mostly agreeing or at least sympathetic with Lachman's arguments, even about points where I’m more skeptical—or perhaps to say cautious—about conclusions and connections. All the points in his case merit careful consideration and invite us to a more in-depth exploration of the issues raised.

For me, a book that promotes—even demands—further explorations of its subjects merits the highest valuation, and this book meets this criterion. I could go on at great length sharing and then riffing on the many issues that Lachman’s book raises: the nature of persuasion; the relation between thoughts, beliefs, actions, and reality; the role of ideas in the material world of politics; the thinning barrier between appearance and reality (or simulacra and simulation); the distinction between “imagination” and “fancy” (or “creativity); critiques of modernity and alternatives to modernity; the illusions and deceptions of postmodernism; the potential for civilizational disruption; and (in my words), why the human herd is so spooked that we have stampeded toward a cliff.

I’ll save exploration of these issues for later blogs, but suffice it to say, I highly recommend reading this book to better understand and investigate the uncertain times in which we now live. 

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