On the Borderlands between Philosophy and Esotericism: An Interview with Gary Lachman


Gary Lachman. Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.


Gary Lachman first came to the public eye in the late 1970s as a founding member of the seminal new wave/punk group, Blondie. Since the early 1990s, however, he has carved out a unique career as a prolific researcher and writer on the borderlands between philosophy, esotericism, and consciousness studies. When Gary contacted me about my biographical work on the German poet and Kulturphilosoph, Jean Gebser, I naturally took the opportunity to explore his work on behalf of the International Jean Gebser Society.

A.C. Your creative path has spanned both a professional music career and a professional writing career focusing on research into esoteric philosophy. Could you elaborate on your personal journey in this regard, i.e. the overlaps, synchronicities, or circumstances that mediated between these two realms? Were there any particular influences, experiences, or events that lead you from one domain to the other?

Blondie. Left–to-right: Clem Burke, Jimmy Destri, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, and Gary Lachman (a.k.a. Gary Valentine).

G.L. I first became aware of and interested in the ideas I write about in 1975, while I was a musician, playing in Blondie and living on the Bowery [New York City]. I had read a great deal before then, mostly in existentialism, people like Nietzsche and Sartre, and had absorbed a lot of counter-cultural ideas from reading Hesse, Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, the Beats, Jung, and that sort of thing. I had no interest in the occult, or only as an element in the weird fiction of which I was a fan, writers like H. P. Lovecraft and the Weird Tales school. We shared our Bowery loft with a wild, flamboyant artist who was interested in Aleister Crowley and who gave impromptu Tarot readings using Crowley’s Thoth deck. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, who I lived with in the loft, also had a kitschy interest in magic, voodoo, and witchcraft. And there was a lot of cultural debris left over from the previous 60s generation having to do with the occult. I read Crowley and became interested in magic and the Golden Dawn, but the book that made the most impact on me was Colin Wilson's The Occult. It impressed me because, firstly, it was so well-written, but also because he approached the occult from a philosophical perspective. It wasn’t just a book about ghosts and spells, but a survey of the history of the occult from the perspective of a philosophy of consciousness. I am still deeply indebted to that book and at the moment I am writing a book about Wilson and his ideas. His ideas about what he calls “Faculty X”, our inherent but mostly unrecognised ability to step “out of time” and grasp the “reality of other times and places”, had a great impact on me because in them I recognised similar experiences I myself had had.


Russian mystic and philosopher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866/77–1949)

These ideas began to influence me and they were expressed in the songs I wrote. One Blondie hit, “(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”, was about the telepathic communications my girlfriend at the time and I were experiencing. We found that we were sharing dreams; while on tour we called each other at the same time or knew when we were calling each other, and so on. When I left Blondie in 1977 I started my own band, the Know. The name came from my interest in gnosis and gnosticism, and the songs I wrote were more and more informed with “esoteric” ideas, mostly coming from the Gurdjieffian tradition and the concern with “waking up” (a few years later I became involved in “the work”). Sadly these songs—which were really good pop songs, not dreary, earnest “spiritual” stuff—are not as well known as I would have liked them to be and because of their “positive” character, they were out of place in the pop nihilism of punk. I disbanded the Know at the end of 1980 and after a year working as a guitarist for Iggy Pop, I retired from rock and roll in 1982 at the hoary age of 26. Because of some song royalties I was able to turn my attention fully to my reading. Gradually what started as a naive enthusiasm became a more serious study of what we might call the lesser known realities of the mind and the history of the people who pursued them. Experiences of my own confirmed the reality of this.


A.C. It must have been a fascinating time. Were there any other significant artists that you encountered during this period who were exploring genuine esoteric or gnostic elements in a meaningful way? I know Debbie Harry later worked with H. R. Giger, whose work is famously replete with occult symbolism. Did any of this ever go beyond the pop/kitsch level, in your opinion?


G. L. I didn’t meet anyone else on the New York scene at that time that was interested in esoteric or occult ideas, although I did have a run in with David Bowie and was asked to leave his mid-town Manhattan loft because I corrected him about some mistaken ideas he had about Colin Wilson. I tell the story in my memoir of the time, New York Rocker, and a shorter version can be found here.  Debbie sometimes consulted the I Ching about the band’s future and she and Chris were convinced that the spirit of a child that used to work in the loft when it was a doll factory visited them sometimes. I didn’t see it so I can’t confirm their sighting, nor can I confirm that building had been a doll factory. But no, I can’t say anyone else I knew then was interested in this sort of thing in a meaningful way. In fact some jokes about it were aimed in my direction. But I was out of the band by late 1977, so I can’t comment on their later career.


A.C. What I find especially interesting about your work is that you engage esoteric thinkers as participants in the history of philosophy proper, something that is often neglected both from the purely esoteric perspective, and from the mainstream philosophical perspective. Could you comment on this relationship between esoteric and mainstream approaches to the philosophy of consciousness?


At the same time as I was reading esoteric literature—as well as books on the paranormal, consciousness studies, psychology, mysticism, literature and so on—I was also deeply interested in philosophy, and my next career move after music was to get a degree in philosophy with the intent of teaching it. I did this in the mid-to late 1980s. While getting my degree I worked at the Bodhi Tree Bookshop in Los Angeles, which at the time was the most well-known and successful “metaphysical bookstore” west of the Rockies. Sadly it no longer exists. There I saw the rise of the “new age” from a concern limited to eccentrics on society's margins to being a mass commercial enterprise. I studied Wittgenstein, Hegel, and Heidegger by day and helped people understand their chakras and the I Ching by night. I was attracted to the esoteric because it seemed to be concerned with questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence that mainstream philosophy more or less ignored, but I valued the rigour and critical thinking that philosophy demanded and which is unfortunately absent from a great deal of “alternative” literature. For a while I put my esoteric interests on hold and devoted myself to understanding the popular philosophical schools of the time, approaches like deconstuctionism, postmodernism, the Frankfurt School, Adorno, and Benjamin. Very quickly I saw that aside from some elements of Benjamin’s work, these really weren’t satisfying—today I find them all pretty useless—but I still retain influences from that time, people like the literary philosopher George Steiner, whose writings on language and culture continue to inform my work, and the literary critic Erich Heller, whose essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke and others I return to again and again.

I see myself as inheriting both traditions and in my work I want to show that we, now, are in an ideal position to bring the two together. I don't mean in some pedantic “system”. But the kinds of questions that obsess me have been addressed by people within both traditions. And if you look at the history of philosophy, some major figures have been influenced by ideas coming from the esoteric tradition. Hegel, for example, was influenced by Jacob Boehme and Hermeticism—Glenn Magee has a book about this. Heidegger’s Gelassenheit has its roots in Meister Eckhart. Rudolf Steiner wrote about Kant and Nietzsche, and his anthroposophy is drenched in German Idealism. And as I point out in The Secret Teachers of the Western World practically all of the western esoteric tradition is rooted in Plato and Neo-platonism. So there is less of a distance between them, or at least some aspects of them, that might at first seem to be the case.


More specifically, I see very clear similarities between, say, some of Alfred North Whitehead's ideas about perception and René Schwaller de Lubicz’s notion of an “intelligence of the heart”, and Henri Bergson’s intuition. and the ideas of Iain McGilchrist on the differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres’ ways of interacting with the world. I write about these in The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus and The Caretakers of the Cosmos. They are all talking about the same thing, and that's what matters. We need to be able to draw on whatever material is available and can help us understand what it is we are trying to grasp. The way Whitehead talks about “meaning perception” in his little book Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect, is very much along the same lines as how Schwaller de Lubicz describes the “intelligence of the heart”. This should not be surprising, as they are both talking about consciousness. We need to forget the kind of snobbishness that can infect both traditions, the esotericists who turned their nose up at “mere philosophy”, and the philosophers who say all this esoteric stuff is rubbish. Again, people like Henry Corbin who introduced ideas about the “imaginal world” and Persian mystics like Suhrawardi started out as a phenomenologist. There is a great deal in common between the phenomenological approach and the Gurdjieff work; Heidegger and Gurdjieff share a lot of territory. The stepping back from the “natural standpoint” that is the essence of Husserl’s work is not vastly different from esoteric approaches to altering consciousness. Some of William James’ insights into consciousness are echoed by Gurdjieff, especially his study of “second wind” in his important essay “The Engeries of Man”. Again, all these people are talking about the same thing. I find it very profitable to understand what they are saying and connect the dots.


French Hermetic philosopher, René Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961)

A.C. One thing that intrigued me about Schwaller de Lubicz’s work is his emphasis on perception and consciousness. Despite being an experienced laboratory alchemist, his ultimate focus, certainly at the end of his life, was on the Great Work as a “metaphysics of perception”: how our most vital moments of consciousness were all that survived, all that mattered. They were permanently “inscribed”, according to Schwaller, on our immortal mineral remains—our salts or mineral ashes, which would survive the death of the body (putrefaction, combustion) to influence higher bodily forms. Consciousness for Schwaller was the hidden link in the evolutionary chain of being. I know a lot of people with a background in the Gurdjieff Work find numerous points of affinity between Schwaller de Lubicz and Gurjieff’s ideas. How do you see the issue of consciousness playing out in relation to the reality of death and the potential survival of consciousness, individual or otherwise?


G.L. Well, Gurdjieff believed that not everyone has a soul or astral body that survives physical death. This could be accomplished but only through repeated efforts to “crystallize” something within us, and this happens through our repeated efforts to “remember ourselves,” and to create a kind of spiritual “heat” that would fuse our many different selves into one. This heat was produced by the struggle between yes and no, by self-discipline and a kind of sacrifice, by going against our immediate inclinations and desires, by not living mechanically or habitually, as we are prone to do. A similar scenario informs ideas about the “diamond body” in Chinese alchemy. I have to say though I am so focused on what our business is here, in this world, that I rarely think about the next. I believe that “higher worlds” exist and that in some sense we may have “descended” from them, but I don’t believe our descent was a fall. We can say we’ve parachuted into this difficult material world, where our freedom is greatly constrained, in order to colonize it. The other realms are more free perhaps, but they offer less opportunity for achievement, in the same sense as, say, air or water is more free than solid matter, but one can’t sculpt with a cloud. This colonization takes the form of increasing our inner freedom, our capacity to inhabit what Teilhard de Chardin called the “noösphere”, a realm of meaning and purpose that we now occasionally glimpse through great works of art, literature, philosophy, and it has an obvious connection to resisting mechanical living. It is a peculiarly human realm. I believe it is a new dimension of reality and that it is our job to bring it into being. I am very fond of Whitehead’s remark that “Life is an offensive directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe”. With Bergson, Shaw, Kazantzakis, Nietzsche, Wilson, and others, I think our job is to spiritualize this realm, to invest it with more life, more consciousness, “life more abundant” as the Gospels say. We may pass to higher, freer realms upon death, but in one form or another we are sent back here in order to carry on the work. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of reincarnation or eternal recurrence—I am interested in both but not a devotee—but in the sense that the “life force”, as Shaw calls it, continuously sends its troops back here to secure new beachheads. I know this language sounds a bit aggressive for our more sensitive ears, but I think we could do with more of a sense of “spiritual warfare”, and less concern for our “health and well-being.”


A.C. How did you first come across the work of Jean Gebser, and were there any particular synchronicities or circumstances that brought his work into your life?


Swiss poet and phenomenologist of consciousness, Jean Gebser (1905–1973).

G.L. That's a good question. I must have seen a reference somewhere. I think the first work about Gebser I read must have been George Feuerstein's book Structures of Consciousness, which I cam across in 1987. The Bodhi Tree had a used book branch that I often worked in and a copy of Feuerstein's book came in. I then saw other references and lo and behold, a copy of The Ever Present Origin—the Barstad and Mickunas translation—appeared too and I settled down to read it, twice. It was exactly the kind of book I love reading. It’s scope was enormous, the writing was clear, passionate, and urgent, it made convincing arguments and offered new perspectives—or aperspectives—from which to look at the history of western consciousness. I was and am still fascinated by the question of language and of course that is Gebser’s starting point (as it is Owen Barfield’s who I also discovered around the same time.) I know that people like Ken Wilber and William Irwin Thompson wrote about Gebser. I never read much of Wilber but I did read William Irwin Thompson but I can’t say that his approach influenced me a great deal. But Gebser seemed to bring the philosophical and mystical (spiritual?) tradition together in this magnum opus. That the book is full of references to Nietzsche, Rilke, looks at developments in art, music, social theory, psychology, and speculates on possible alterations in our perception of time made me feel quite at home with it.


A.C. Jean Gebser is always careful to avoid slipping into the modalities of esoteric philosophy, which he regards as a “falling back” into what he calls the “mythic structure of consciousness”. At the same time, for a number of reasons, his work has been sorely neglected in western esoteric and western philosophical circles. What is your approach to Gebser, and how do you see him fitting into the wider narratives of esotericism, philosophy, and consciousness studies?


G.L. I know Gebser is critical of the esoteric or magical approaches. I do think that in some cases he didn’t really understand some of the people he mentions, like Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, or at least was perhaps understandably misinformed about them. And it is unfortunate that his experience of the “magical structure of consciousness” came in the form of Nazi rallies. We need, of course, to avoid falling into the uncritical acceptance of “magic” in that way or in other “group mind” phenomena, many of which make up a great deal of today’s “alternative” milieu. But the esoteric thinkers I am interested in had very critical minds and were not afraid to use them. Ouspensky’s Teritum Organum, written before his encounter with Gurdjieff, deals with many of the same ideas and insights as Gebser does. As far as I can tell his speculations on “higher dimensions” relate very closely to “aperspectivalism”. I think we need to avoid dogmatism, whether from a Gebserian or an esoteric perspective. I’ve written about Gebser in the context of other philosophers of consciousness, some esoteric, some not. In A Secret History of Consciousness I point out the great similarities between Gebser’s “structures of consciousness” and Steiner’s own reading of the evolution of consciousness, and in The Secret Teachers of the Western World I look at the history of the western esotericism through the lens of Gebser’s structures, as well as that of Iain McGilchrist's re-reading of the right/left brain dialectic. In The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus I see the revival of Hermeticism in the Renaissance as a result of the new perspectivism that Gebser argues was inaugurated by Petrarch’s celebrated ascent of Mount Ventoux. And in The Secret Teachers of the Western World I suggest that we can understand the “occult revival” of the 1960s, which grew into our own “new age”, as a symptom of what Gebser calls the “breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness”. I think there are more links between Gebser’s ideas and some esoteric ones than he might have recognised.

A.C. One thing I found particularly interesting in my biographical researches on Gebser is the influence that Frederico García Lorca had on Gebser’s understanding of the “magical” structure of consciousness. (As you know, Gebser knew Lorca personally, and worked closely with him in Madrid before the Spanish Civil War rent things asunder in 1936). Lorca’s world was, for Gebser, a nocturnal, matriarchal, and feminine world, replete with the symbols of the underworld and the night-side of existence. I have always felt this is a much more evocative expression of that particular consciousness structure than the more “anthropological” or “sociological” character that Gebser gave to it in The Ever-Present Origin. It calls to mind a number of connections with contemporary themes in Surrealism, for instance. Also, the general theme of left/right as matriarchy/patriarchy is obviously relevant to Gilchrist’s (and Gimbutas’) work.


G.L. I guess it would be matriarchy/right and patriarchy/left, a polarity Leonard Shlain develops in his book The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, about the demise of an earlier, image-based feminine consciousness at the hands of our more verbal masculine one. Certainly there is a great deal of common ground between poetry and magic. Good poetry affects us viscerally in the same way that Gebser says the magical structure does. It “moves” us. The Austrian writer and occultist Gustav Meyrink said that magic is “doing without knowing,” something that another occultist and writer—poet even—Aleister Crowley agreed with when he said that the best magic occurs unconsciously, in the same way that we can make an incredible shot at billiards but not know how we did it. It was this “unconscious” aspect of poetry that troubled Plato and led him to make his critical remarks about poets, how they do their best work by entering a trance of some kind and having a voice not their own speak through them. They were “possessed” and for the rational mind, such possession is dubious. And of course it was this that interested the surrealists, with their attempts to by-pass the critical mind through automatic writing and the kind of stream-of-unconsciousness poetry they produced in hypnagogic states, between sleeping and waking.  The poet Peter Redgrove wrote a fascinating book about this, The Black Goddess and the Unseen Real, about how our sight-oriented culture has marginalised our other senses and how through these we can enter areas of being of which we are usually ignorant. The psychologist and paranormal theorist Stan Gooch made the same argument, and believed that poets and psychics have a lot in common. I think though that it is clear that although inspired, the best poetry is a result of a fruitful co-operation between our conscious and unconscious minds. This is something Friedrich Schiller spelled out in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, where, put simply, he argues for a creative collaboration between the imagination and reason, the creative inspiration and the critical articulation of it. The kind of word-salad that Andre Breton, Philippe Soupault and other surrealists produced is of more historical interest than literary, I think.


A.C. How has your research into the history of esotericism in general, and the work of Jean Gebser in particular, influenced your life and work personally? 


G.L. For the last twenty-five years I have been focussed on trying to get a clear idea of the narrative of western consciousness, its story, as well as how this is expressed in ourselves, our own consciousness. The two clearly are related. Before this—before I started writing about these ideas in the early 1990s—I spent a good fifteen or so years reading constantly and experimenting with different practical approaches; this included a period of being a practicing “magician”, some years in the Gurdjieff work, some time spent in a Jungian context, and other approaches. Throughout this time I studied philosophy as well. So it would not be an exaggeration, I think, to say that have devoted my life to trying to get a decent grip on those fundamental existential questions: who am I, why am I here, and what am supposed to do now that I am? I do not consider myself a particularly “spiritual” person. I don’t like the term particularly, because it has acquired connotations that I find unhelpful. The historian Jacques Barzun—another mainstream thinker whose work has influenced me—once made a handy distinction between “spiritual” and “things of the spirit”. Barzun feels himself to be ”obedient to ‘spirit’, knowing that from it alone come the things that justify life —things, in Nietzsche's words, ‘transfiguring, exquisite, mad, and divine’”. I know how Nietzsche and Barzun feel. Part of this “obedience” involves developing a trust in life, a bottom-line knowledge that, although it is a grim and difficult business, life ultimately means well by us. Gebser called this trust Urvertrauen, “primal trust”, as opposed to the angst we feel most of the time. You can say that I try to make this primal trust the default setting for my attitude toward life. This doesn’t let us off the hook. We still have to do the work. I'm not a believer in “letting go and letting God”. God has enough on his plate and passing the buck on to him only makes us lazy. Anything of value is achieved through our own efforts, including our own evolution. Having a primal trust in life helps us to make those efforts.


A.C. I’m glad you mentioned Primordial Trust. It’s probably one of Gebser’s most important ideas, in my opinion, because it requires a lived attitude of accepting the uncertainties of existence. It is also one of the most direct ways of going beyond rational consciousness, which obsessively seeks certitude in all things. Of course, it is no coincidence that Gebser personally knew Werner Heisenberg, whose “Uncertainty Principle” brought this approach to the very heart of the constitution of physical reality. What do you think this suggests about the connection between the fundamental realities of consciousness and our understanding of the cosmos at large?

German quantum physicist, Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976).

German quantum physicist, Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976).

G.L. I agree with Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner when they say that the world we perceive is determined by our consciousness, and so ultimately our consciousness and the cosmos are the same, or at least are deeply and intimately related. At the risk of cliché, they are two halves of one whole. I do think that the kind of uncertainty Heisenberg speaks of is different from the kind Gebser’s primal trust concerns, although of course they are related. It is of course important and welcome that the kind of absolute certainty nineteenth century scientists were keen on has turned out to be something of a pipe dream. But uncertainty about my life is not the same, I think, as uncertainty about the position or speed of a particle. In fact, that kind of uncertainty can produce more existential uncertainty than trust. T. S. Eliot asked “Do I dare disturb the universe”, and according the Heisenberg, we are disturbing it all the time. The knowledge that some act of mine may upset the cosmic apple cart can lead to paralysis. Fundamentally I think we are faced with the challenge of believing that life, the universe, means well by us, even if there is scant evidence to back this up. We can’t sit on the sidelines and tally up reasons for or against trusting life. We are in it whether we like it or not and have to act. Thus spoke existentialism. And of course there are many certainties that are absolutely needed. It was David Hume’s radical skepticism, which even excluded cause and effect, that woke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and led to his philosophy. I tend to look at Gebser’s primal trust in the same way that I do William James’ “will to believe”. James makes the helpful remark that we have a better chance of accomplishing some act if we believe we can do it than if we believe we can’t. There is no proof for our belief, so we can’t justify it with evidence—it would not be belief then but knowledge—but the belief itself informs our capacity to act, supplements it, and the successful act provides the justification. Of course we may be wrong. There are no guarantees. But the risk involved makes life an adventure and a worthy recipient of our efforts. And life itself in a sense takes note of this and responds. I think it is also true that much of what we consider life’s animus toward us is really a result of our own unconscious assumptions. We think life is “out to get us”, and so in some way this belief becomes self-fulfilling. Real trust is not the same as intellectual assent. It goes deeper down. When we can achieve this I think things begin to go better for us.

Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. Former president of the International Jean Gebser Society, he is the author and editor of Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Numen Books, 2013), and translator of Jean Gebser's Rilke and Spain (forthcoming through Rubedo Press).
— www.aaroncheak.com —