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Lost Knowledge of the Imagination Paperback – January 15, 2018
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'Lachman...manages to make basic concepts in esoteric philosophy and history lively as well as readable.'
– Kirkus Reviews
'Lachman creates a history of ideas that fascinates and excites'
– New York Journal of Books
'One of the leading students of the western esoteric tradition, Lachman has published critical studies of Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Steiner, P.D. Ouspensky and Jung – and he has done so without being raptly worshipful or casually dismissive.'
– Washington Post
– Philip Pullman
'[A] compact, erudite and thoughtful book.'
– Scientific and Medical Network Journal
'An excellent book – scholarly but eminently readable by anyone seeking appreciation of the spiritual.'
– Howard Jones, Alister Hardy Society
'Lost Knowledge of the Imagination rejoins the parted Red Sea of modern intellect, demonstrating how rationalism and esotericism are not divided forces but necessary complements and parts of a whole in the human wish for understanding. Let's be done, once and for all, with the shallow and misdirected notion that reason and mysticism are at odds. Lachman demonstrates their harmony.'
– Mitch Horowitz, PEN Award-winning author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
'Gary Lachman has done an impressive amount of research. His thesis is very carefully laid out and his conclusions are sensible and attractive.'
– Magonia Review of Books
'I thought this was an excellent book – scholarly but eminently readable for anyone seeking appreciation of the spiritual.'
– De Numine, The Journal and Newsletter of the Alister Hardy Trust
'Gary Lachman is one of my favorite authors alive. Scholarly in his approaches to esoteric topics and historical figures, Lachman has blessed us with a deep crop of books... Thankfully, Lachman is here to emphasize the importance and power of the imagination, and the inner and outer worlds of the mind – 4.5/5 stars'
From the Inside Flap
Imagination is a core aspect of being human. Our imagination allows us to fully experience ourselves in relation to the world and reality. Imagination plays a key role in creativity and innovation.
Since the seventeenth century, however, imagination has been sidelined and dismissed as 'make believe'. Four centuries ago, a new way of knowing the world and ourselves emerged in the west and has gone on to dominate human life: science. Imagination has been marginalised – depicted as a way of escaping reality, rather than coming to grips with it – and its significance to our humanity has been downplayed.
Yet as we move further into the strange new world of the twenty-first century, the need to regain this lost knowledge seems more necessary that ever before.
This insightful and inspiring book argues that, for the sake of the future of our world, we must redress the balance. Through the work of Owen Barfield, Goethe, Henry Corbin, Kathleen Raine, and others, and ranging from the teachings of ancient mystics to the latest developments in neuroscience, The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination introduces the reader to a philosophy and tradition that restores imagination to its rightful place, and argues that it is not only essential to our knowing reality to the full, but to our very humanity itself.
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From various angles Gary Lachman traces the tension between the intuitive and rational, the figurative and the literal, which continually seeks a balance externally, but which has increasingly become heavily lopsided to the side of reductionist science (left brain) and a reliance on the sharp and bright light of analytical thinking.
"Banishing 'the vague' may seem like a good idea. Of course we want things to be clear, simple, and direct, and that is something the left brain, according to McGilchrist, is very good at making them. But too much clarity can obscure things as well as reveal them. The sun's light hides the stars. A 'perfectly clear conceptual model of reality, adapted to explain all phenomena by the simplest formula' sounds like the most 'cost efficient' way of explaining the world and ourselves. But efficiency isn't everything and 'the vague' for Cornford means the kinds of things amenable to Pascal's spirit of finesse, but not his spirit of geometry. It means values like beauty, freedom, love things that are important in a more than utilitarian way, whose importance is in themselves and not as a means to some practical or socially beneficial end. They are, as George Steiner calls them, 'the sovereignly useless'. They are not good for anything, however thinkers of a Darwinian slant may say they are. They give life meaning and are what make it worth living. When Jesus said that man does not live by bread alone, this is what he had in mind." (p. 23)
So what is this imagination we have neglected (and which popular culture all too casually dismisses as unreal and fanciful)?
"I take it from Colin Wilson, who in his own work explored the evolutionary potential of imagination. Imagination, he said, is 'the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present". Not an escape from reality, or a substitute for it, but a deeper engagement with it. We could also say that imagination is simply our ability to grasp reality, or even, in some strange way, to create it, or at least to collaborate in its creation." (p. 31)
"We usually think of the imaginary as unreal, false - in general as some way less than the physical, sensory world. Or we see it as leading to 'novelty' or the 'cutting edge' in some process - this means technology most often today. But Corbin and Jung and others contend that for them - and potentially for all of us - the 'Imaginal' constitutes an entire world of its own, this is just as objective as the sensory world, with its own geography, history, laws, and, as Jung discovered, its own inhabitants." (p. 94)
"The truth of the world, Goethe maintains, is given immediately. Nature, for Goethe is not hidden, or if she is, it is in plain sight. Naked is the best disguise. Her secrets are manifest if we know how to look for them. 'Nature', Goethe once wrote, 'has neither kernel nor shell; she is everything at once'. As Heller writes: 'what is within and what is without are for Goethe merely poles of one and the same thing.' If this is so, then what is going inside the observer is at least as important as what is going on outside him, what, that is, he is observing. Our attitude toward what we are observing will determine what we see." (p. 66)
As seen in the passages quoted above, almost every page is densely packed with real insight and abundant cultural references (philosophic, religious, poetic and scientific) that give the reader plenty of food for thought and further avenues to pursue (an extensive "further reading" bibliography is included at the end). I especially appreciate how Lachman makes Iain McGilchrist's ("The Master and His Emissary") work on the complementary yet opposite functions of the two hemispheres of our brain foundational to his discussion. Such a synthetic world view of our lost knowledge of our intuitive roots, informed by modern scientific knowledge of our brain's physiology is one of those rare instances when the metaphorical and literal meet to enhance each other, giving us access to the essential key we've been holding all along.
Synthetic, poetic, inclusive, articulate, precise, suggestive, intuitive and playful; Gary Lachman's latest book embodies the balance of opposites - the very 'Goldilocks moment' of understanding - he writes about, inspiring us to find it in our own lives as well.
I live in Puerto Rico and have worked as a psychiatrist for many years. I happened to be reading this book when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. I realized the need to further discuss the book with an experienced psychologist living outside the island (North Dakota). These discussions have been and are still today very helpful for understanding psychological transformative dynamics after catastrophic events.
Gary Lachman presents the controversial subject matter of imagination grounded on findings by Iain McGilchrist into the ways of the brain. Sounds contradictory? Yes, but just like McGillchrist contradictory hemispheres, it fits. Lachman continues an important comparison started by Colin Wilson in “Super Consciousness. The Quest for the Peak experience” so that if the grounding is Iain McGilchrist, the background is Colin Wilson and Lachman shows they are both a perfect match. That alone makes this book very interesting and important within the field of consciousness.
The first chapter covers historical evolution up to the present. The second chapter takes a deeper look at Owen Barfield’s concept (way) of participation, taking it Into chapter 3 with a discussion about “active seeing” within the context of the one encounter between Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Fredrick Schiller. Theoretically, this forces Corbin and an extraordinary blend of Carl Jung and Henry Corbin is offered in chapter four. Chapter five brings important insights about the subject matter as written by Kathleen Raine.
To further enrich the wisdom presented by Gary Lachman consider reading “The Master and it’s Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist, “Super Consciousness” by Colin Wilson and Lachman’s “Beyond the Robot-The Life and Work of Colin Wilson”. Henry Corbin’s writings on Jung edited by Michel Cazenave (“Autour de Jung, le bouddhisme et la Sophia” and “Acerca de Jung”) are also very helpful.
Top international reviews
And Lost Knowledge of the Imagination is as impressive as it is insightful.
In a world increasingly orientated towards the outer at the expense of the inner, Lachman sees the value of esotericism precisely for its emphasis on this inner world of meaning, purpose and, in short, our sense of values. The occult and esoteric has become, in a sense, the culture’s repressed unconscious, which occasionally bursts forth in fin-de-siecle counter-cultures, as it did with the 1960s ‘occult revival’ and again in the 1990s, with its obsession with shamanic hallucinogens and tribal rave culture. Indeed, Lachman writes about these subjects – sometimes obscure and arcane – in a style that is accessible, intelligent and level-headed; traits often sadly lacking in the genre. There is, in his increasing oeuvre, a manifest degree of discernment and – where deserved – sympathy that is strengthened by what his fellow historian of the occult, Mitch Horowitz, called a ‘gentle but assertive purpose’.
Now, if one were to classify the true philosopher as someone concerned with ‘truth, beauty and justice’, then this new book is Lachman’s pursuit of the importance and essential dynamism at the heart of beauty, with its immense role in the revival of a culture that has placed it dangerously low on its hierarchy of values. One could say that Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013) was a call for a creative actualisation of these values, and more importantly putting them into practice, ‘doing the good that you know’. And, his forthcoming book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018) looks to be a direct address on the state of world justice; an attempt to understand the streams and convergences of magical and esoteric streams in recent times and their role in a world of ‘post-truth’, and . . . well, post-everything hysteria.
Nothing in Lachman’s oeuvre is unrelated; it is all part of a deeper realisation that was already present in his earlier work. Each work is essentially informed by this vision and recognition of the importance of esoteric knowledge, particularly its psychological dimensions and its acknowledgement of an ultimately meaningful cosmos. Indeed, one of his central influences is the late encyclopedic writer and optimistic ‘new existentialist’, Colin Wilson, on whom Lachman has written the definitive biography, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016). Lachman, in the spirit of Wilson, is also addressing the essentially pessimistic premise on which contemporary culture has dangerously rooted itself. And with a world bereft of the very values found in this ‘rejected’ knowledge, we are left with a fragmentary and deconstructed world of matter without any larger meaningful context. Humanity also increasingly sees itself as a part of this context-free void, therefore denying the very value of meaning (merely subjective), and therefore diminishing its own stature in a materialistic cosmology that rejects, ultimately, all values. Again, driving both philosophers is a recognition that we live in world of deteriorating values, with an ‘anything goes’ attitude that effectively strips us of any real motive for freedom – or even an inspiring concept of freedom itself. The question is now: freedom for what? Lachman, in surveying many systems that recognise that freedom is something earned, and is moreover, is an urgent reminder of the value of being, offers a new orientation that includes both value and purpose. One gets from reading both writers, Wilson and Lachman, a sense that this is a crucial and important corrective for our postmodern age – an active recognition and renewal of our ability for discernment in a world dislocating itself from any centre.
Postmodernism and post-structuralism, caught in the trap of ‘object-relations’, cannot wrench itself out of its own swirling, linguistic orbit, in which, for philosophers like Jacques Lacan, we merely ‘ex-ist’ rather than exist. The philosopher Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), described the outcome of these philosophical developments, which in turn led to a general belief that the ‘nature of truth and reality, in science no less than in philosophy, religion, or art’ became ‘radically ambiguous’ – or radically subjectivised. He continues by saying that man, unable to ‘transcend the manifold predispositions of his or her subjectivity’ becomes trapped in a ‘fusion of horizons’, which leads to a form of nihilistic solipsism – or, in other strains, it becomes too unbounded, leading to a paradoxically flattening form of relativism. This loss of centre, as it were, results in an atmosphere that permeates our culture – affecting the arts and their previous attempts to reflect values beyond themselves – in which our individual and existential sovereignty is so abstracted that it is often reduced to algorithmic, or even algebraic, formulations in much of postmodernism and – chillingly – in the world of social media and even, more dangerously, politics.
The great esoteric scholar, Manly P. Hall called this our problem of ‘orientation disorientation’ – we have lost our way, so to speak. And not only in ourselves, for this clearly reflects in our culture, flattening it to a husk of hyper-politicisation and is reflected in our crisis of identity. Timeless, objective, reliable value systems have been replaced with a liquid, amorphous mass uprooted from any healthy, cosmological and psychological reality; our choice, effectively, is to face our arbitrary existence in a universe indifferent to the strivings of our very being, or merely improvise with the equivalent of flimsy props in a theatre of unreality.
We are, as Lachman argues, fundamentally adrift from the origin of meaning itself. And it is this loss of origin that led to the forgetfulness of the imagination’s essential role in grasping both meaning and reality – both culturally and individually. Indeed, is it any wonder why we have lost our ability to discern our values? Freedom, in this relativistic atmosphere, becomes an ironic freedom – and irony, moreover, becomes the only cosmological constant that informs the world of contemporary art. An atmosphere of self-referential pointlessness permeates our culture, and the only way to temporarily satiate its bitter flavor is through often stark and ill-contrasting brutality; visceral ‘shocks’ aimed solely at our baser, more automatic instincts.
Addressing this universal crisis of meaning, Lachman’s book stands in the tradition of classics like Maurice Nicoll’s Living Time (1952) and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977). These two genre-defying books proposed radically new cosmologies, incorporating in their brilliant synthesis both the unification of rationality and intuition, in an attempt to resolve the modern psyche’s widening chasm between meaning and matter. Lachman’s book, alongside these, place their emphasis on the verticality of meaning, that is, their evolutionary and convergent purposes towards higher degrees of spiritual and psychological integration. It is in direct contrast to the pervasive atmosphere of value relativism and materialistic reductionism, and instead offers a logical alternative to the manifestly problematic arrangement of our priorities.
In approaching the difficult subject of the imagination, plagued as it is by its very evanescence and vague character, Lachman nevertheless proceeds with great authority, firmness of purpose, and with many insights that transmutes knowledge of the imagination into something palpably and urgently real. He shows us that the imagination is not a mere ‘flight of fancy’, but has its own epistemology, its own disciplines and masterful practitioners.
The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination explores various thinker’s, artist’s and poet’s excursions into this important other ‘half’ of our existence – precisely the half that needs to be integrated in a world fraught with increasing polarization and dis-integration. And importantly, he unearths the knowledge they bought back with them. The imaginative source, that ‘intuitive glue’ which binds together our view of the cosmos, is called upon as a means to repair the rift between two worlds that were once complimentary; it is a call, moreover, towards an active phenomenological understanding of the true origin of meaning. Being one of the true practitioners and teachers of the imagination, the poet Samuel Coleridge is an important figure in Lachman’s book. For this poet, who contemplated the ‘objects of Nature’, was able to entwine two worlds, both inner and outer, into a state which allowed him visions of the eternal dynamism between meaning, consciousness and matter. Colerdige, in his own words, entered a new world redolent with ‘symbolic language . . . that already and forever exists’ – a world, in short, where the knowledge of the imagination reigns supreme – presaging, for the poet, a ‘dim Awakening of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature’, which Coleridge referred to as both the Creator and, importantly in light of this essay, ‘the Evolver!’.