The Theosophical Society in America

Book Reviews 2017

Out of Darkness: From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation
Cecil Messer
Asheville, N.C.: TwoCrows , 2016; vi + 194 pp., paper, $9. 

Out of Darkness is a warm, engaging approach to the practice of meditation. The author draws from a lifetime of meditative exploration, presenting the reader with a rich panorama of contemplative practices from Eastern and Western traditions. As you read the pages of the book, you get the feeling that the author is speaking directly to you as a fellow traveler on a sacred journey, and without any trace of pedantry or dogma. Since meditation involves art as much as science, the author’s personal touch adds to the overall effectiveness of his presentation.

Cecil Messer, a longtime member of the TS, explains the book’s title as referring to “a movement away from our present status as alienated beings residing in a confused world of our own making.” In the modern world, millions of people live lives that are devoid of real happiness, which leads them to pursue one temporary pleasure after another. Who can argue with the author’s observation that “few people sustain real happiness or experience enduring contentment throughout their lifetime”? For those who chase one micropleasure after another, life is a “perpetual carousel” that leaves them feeling unsettled, confused, and dissatisfied. Hence the book’s subtitle, From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation.

Out of Darkness consists of four sections: an introduction, the Western approach, the Eastern approach, and the integration of both. Each of the fifteen chapters ends with a short meditative practice called a “sitting session.” These fifteen exercises are varied and simple, and progress in nuanced stages. Before attempting any of them, however, the reader is advised to review the “sitting fundamentals,” consisting of ten basic points regarding body position, posture, and so forth. Experienced meditators will be familiar with these preliminaries, but their inclusion is helpful for the novice.

The section on the Western approach includes passing references to Rumi, Thomas Merton, The Secret Doctrine, HPB’s diagram of meditation, The Voice of the Silence, and the Old and New Testaments. In taking such an eclectic approach, it is not the author’s intent to linger or dwell on any one particular point, but to highlight “those religious practices that emphasize and follow the wisdom of the teachings of their religion and lead to a profound renewal of mind and heart.” When this renewal is experienced, the phrase “born again” truly applies, regardless of whether one identifies with the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or any other religious tradition.

Turning to the East, Messer puts the spotlight on the wisdom found in Buddhism, with its emphasis on the Paramitas, and the Yoga Sutras, with Patanjali’s “eight-limbed” system of yoga. He does a skillful job of distilling key points from different philosophical systems, weaving them into one flowing argument that advocates the daily practice of meditation. Since the author describes himself as a practitioner of nonsectarian Buddhism, it is not surprising that he emphasizes Buddhist doctrines. And while technical explanations of terms and systems appear throughout the book, these are interspersed with short stories and anecdotes, all of which serve to keep the reader interested and moving to the next page.

In the opinion of this reviewer, Out of Darkness is an outstanding manual on meditation, but one that will be most beneficial for those just beginning their meditative journey. Throughout the book, the inquisitive reader will find many ideas for further study and inquiry. To maximize the utility of this book, the practitioner is advised to become intimately familiar with each of the fifteen sessions, doing them one at a time, patiently, and without rushing on to the next one. In the words of the author, they are “designed to encourage the practitioner to effortlessly relax into a profoundly subtle and interiorly oriented state.” This is a fine book, and one that I can recommend. My only criticism would be a relatively minor point, namely that the book would benefit from having an index. Perhaps this could be added if a second edition were to be published someday.

David Bruce



The Bhagavad Gita: A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life; A New Translation and Commentary
Ravi Ravindra
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2017. 302 pp., paper, $19.95

When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external tragedies and if they have not left any visible or invisible effect on me, I owe it to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita.

—Mahatma Gandhi

 It is rare that an Indian child grows up without the influence of the sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gita. As a young child, I was trained to chant the Gita fluently and entered into chanting competitions. Did we understand the true meaning of what the Gita taught? I am afraid to answer.

At the beginning of this new translation, Ravi Ravindra tells a touching story about how his father used to read Gita in Sanskrit to him. He said to his son at the age of eleven, “I can tell you what these words say, but I don’t know what it really means and I wish for you that you will find a teacher or a teaching that will assist you to understand its real meaning.” I could relate, as it brought back memories of my conversations with my own father on the same journey.

Yes, we understood the story. The Gita is set as a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer, Lord Krishna. We knew that Arjuna did not want to fight in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, as he saw ones who were dear to him across the battlefield. We heard the teachings Krishna gave (we chanted them so often!), and we heard the terms yoga and swadharma (“doing what is right”—which may vary from individual to individual).

We may not have understood much then, but the seed was planted. So I was not surprised to read about Ravi Ravindra’s drive to understand the deeper meaning of these teachings. Study of the Gita is a lifelong process. Every time one reads it, a new understanding is revealed, another layer of spiritual maturation is discovered. Ravindra’s new commentary and translation of the Gita is the result of this lifelong journey (and probably not a finished one either!).

The list of commentaries on the Gita is endless. Great minds such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, S. Radhakrishnan, Shankaracharya, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nikhilananda, Chinmayananda, Vinoba Bhave, and Dnyaneshwar have written profound commentaries, both scholarly ones and ones that give us practical advice for our daily life struggles.

The identity of the battlefield depicted in the Gita has produced different views. The one I find most enlightening is the one that says that the dilemma faced by Arjuna and the dilemmas we face in our daily life are not different. Our life too is a battlefield.

Ravindra looks at the Gita as a yoga that is multidimensional. Each chapter in his translation of the Gita is titled “The Yoga of . . . ” It conveys a global view of the Gita as a scripture. The basic guidance from Lord Krishna is “Be firm in yoga and arise.” Arise here also means awakening with knowledge and translating that knowledge into action with wisdom.

Ravindra has spent his life exploring the mystical traditions of the world including Zen, Christianity, yoga, and the teachings of J. Krishnamurthi and G.I. Gurdjieff. This book reflects the depth of Ravindra’s understanding. In an enlightening introduction he first gives us the background of Arjuna’s conflict and says: “The Bhagavad Gita is not about stopping war nor about promoting it. Also it is not about avoiding conflict or renouncing the use of force . . . It is rather about a radical transformation of the warrior in order to be able to engage in the battle consciously and not compulsively or in reaction, to use force without violence, and to fight impartially—without vanity in victory and without regret in defeat.” Isn’t this exactly how we are to face our real-life dilemmas and struggles?

Ravindra quotes the Epistle to the Ephesians: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ravindra’s commentary on the Gita blends in similar teachings from other world traditions throughout. The notes section at the end of the book is a great resource for this, and also provides a brief introduction to the Mahabharata war and some of its characters. I particularly like the way this version has grouped together verses with common threads, which conveys the teachings in a unique and clear way.

Ravindra says at the end of the eighteenth chapter, “In a human being, a part belongs to the domain of time and materiality and engages in action, reincarnating again and again, subject to the law of karma. There is another part, the Eternal Witness, not affected by force of time. Arjuna participates in the battle . . . Krishna remains above the battle, watchful and aware . . . Life is struggle; and none of us has a choice about participating in this battle. The real question is how to be a good warrior engaged in the battle and at the same time to discover and connect with the Krishna deep within ourselves.” This is certainly one of the central messages of this great text.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.

A Guided Tour of Hell: A Graphic Memoir
Samuel Bercholz
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2016;  147 + xi pp., hardcover, $24.95.

There has always been a place in my library—and in my heart—for books that are surpassingly strange. They have often proved rewarding: I have bought more than one book as a curiosity and had it change my life.

Reading Samuel Bercholz’s Guided Tour of Hell did not change my life, though its surpassing strangeness cannot be denied. On the one hand, it is yet another of the growing pile of books devoted to near-death experiences (NDEs). On the other hand, unlike many of them, it recounts not a journey into the light but a Dantesque vision of hell, Buddhist-style.

Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, is a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and its influence shows on every page of this weird and disturbing book. The journey begins when, at age sixty, Bercholz has a heart attack and is scheduled for immediate sextuple coronary bypass surgery. Wheeled into the operating room, he is given general anesthesia, loses consciousness, and in effect dies.

“Here,” he writes, “was an alternative world, thoroughly different from the earthly world I had left behind. My senses were overwhelmed by the unbearable odor of burning flesh and extremes of heat and cold beyond imagination . . . A wordless message was somehow conveyed to me: This is the domain of hell. You have been brought here as a guest, to witness and understand the suffering of beings of all kinds—particularly the suffering of human beings” (emphasis Bercholz’s).

And witness it he does. Accompanied by his guide, whom he calls “the Buddha of Hell,” he experiences “the landscape of hell . . . a vast expanse with countless inhabitants, veritable oceans of suffering beings. The sufferings of each and every one of these beings are due to their own mental conceptions. In fact, their suffering in hell is an unbroken continuation of their own states of mind during life, which persisted even after the death of the physical body . . . It would soon become clear that an inescapable characteristic of hell is the sheer redundancy of self-created sufferings, which pound consciousness in seemingly perpetual cycles.”

In this journey he encounters beings like Momo Drollo, a grotesque giant. In her life she had lived a nomadic life in Tibet, married to two brothers, whose deaths, combined with other misfortunes, suffused her with bitterness. “She lived from her bile, always read to blurt hateful words. She perceived everyone as her enemy, including her children, who could do nothing right.” Although she wanted to be reborn into the family of a wealthy merchant, she ended up in hell.

An even starker case is Afanas Popov, a Russian intellectual who came up with a doomsday machine, “not something that would damage one place or injure one group of people, but a machine that, if Russia were threatened, would destroy the entire world, turning it to dust.” At one point a crisis ensues, and Popov was just about to press the switch when he was shot by his own soldiers. In the hell realm, “his body was like a hologram filled with all the bodies of hell, all the individuals of hell. There was absolutely no separation between himself and these individuals, yet he had contempt and disgust for every part of the body that was made up of other hell-beings. Even though they were no different from his own hell-being, he was claustrophobized by his own fingers, his own feet, his own organs.”

Eventually, of course, the vision ends, and Bercholz regains consciousness to face a long and difficult recovery.

The book has a graphic format, and is luridly illustrated by artist Pema Namdol Thaye, who has been trained in Tibetan traditional art methods. Unfortunately his mastery of American graphics style is little better than adequate, and many of his illustrations, like most mediocre treatments of horrific themes, are less terrifying than they are unpleasant. Indeed the illustrations are the weakest part of Bercholz’s graphic memoir.

This tour through hell raises many questions, of course. The most obvious one is this: Many of those who have reported on their NDEs, including Eben Alexander (see Quest, winter 2015) and Natalie Sudman (see Quest, summer 2017), describe experiences that are unique or at any rate difficult to categorize through theology. But Bercholz’s is quite different: it is practically a textbook description of the hell realms as portrayed in Buddhist literature. To what extent has his spiritual practice conditioned him to see the afterlife in this way? This has long been an issue in the philosophical enquiry into mystical experience: is the visionary seeing only what his religion has conditioned him to see? For Alexander and Sudman, this does not seem to be the case, but it certainly is for Bercholz. Then of course we must ask, does this tend to validate his experience or throw doubt upon it?

No one can say that Bercholz did not have these visions. Do we then have to say that his Tibetan Buddhist practice conditioned his mind so deeply that he saw through its lens even in a coma? Or are we to conclude that he happened to visit the Buddhist hell, which of course would imply Christian and Jewish and Muslim hells? Perhaps a Buddhist would argue that these others are all inferior versions of his own—but then every religion tends to say that sort of thing. In the end, I will have to put this Buddhist Inferno on the shelf of my library dedicated to works of strangeness, and leave it at that.

Richard Smoley


Taormina’s Historic Past and Continuing Story: A Unique Spiritual Community in Ojai
Helene Vachet
Minneapolis: MCP Books, 2016, xxii + 148 pages, paper, $17.95.

Nestled in a sea of trees next to Krotona Institute of Theosophy in Ojai, California, is the neighborhood of Taormina, originally envisioned as a retirement community for Theosophists. Since its founding, Taormina has experienced many ups and downs. The changes and developments it has experienced are the subject of Helene Vachet’s delightful account.

The book begins by explaining that Ruth Wilson was a Theosophist from St. Louis who had a dream for a Theosophical retirement community. She obtained small sum of money as the result of a car accident, and used these funds to develop such a community in the 1960s. She experienced difficulties obtaining land in Ojai, but she persisted, eventually purchasing property adjacent to Krotona and naming the community after the Sicilian town connected to both Pythagoras and J. Krishnamurti. Wilson was partial to a modified French Norman style of architecture. As a result, the vast majority of the homes in Taormina display this style to varying degrees.

Taormina is no longer exclusive to Theosophists. In 1983 a California appellate court ruled that Theosophical affiliation could not be required for home ownership in the community. Since then, numerous non-Theosophists have called Taormina home. Vachet profiles many of the residents in three large chapters divided into early, current, and recent residents respectively. Consisting of over sixty pages, these brief biographies include figures such as James Perkins, former president of the Theosophical Society in America, Gina Cerminara, a prominent author whose titles include a biography of Edgar Cayce, and many artists and writers who have found inspiration there. The book is divided into eighteen chapters, and includes a foreword by Joy Mills and an introduction by R.E. Mark Lee, trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation. The back matter addendum includes a historical timeline, a timeline of when houses were built, endnotes, architectural details, and credits for over 120 illustrations and pictures in the chapters.

Overall, this volume summarizes the history of Taormina, not focusing on the details of the community’s contentious past, but instead aiming to give a general survey of its challenges over the last few decades, and an illustration of who has lived within it. At times, this history read more like a Taormina who’s who, or a 150-page neighborhood tour brochure for someone who just relocated into the community. Nevertheless, this volume not only recaps the major events that molded the community, but also brings Taormina to life by highlighting those who call or have called it home. This book is a welcome contribution, introducing a Theosophical community of which few are aware. I recommend it to all with an interest in the history of Theosophy in America or intentional religious communities.

John L. Crow

John L. Crow is a faculty member at Florida State University studying American religious history and online learning.

The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic
Éliphas  Lévi, translated by John Michael Greer and Mark Anthony Mikituk

New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017. 512 pp., paper, $22.

Éliphas Lévi (the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810–75) was one of the most influential occultists of the nineteenth century. Born in Paris, he began by studying for the priesthood but stopped when he realized that he was not likely to overcome his love for women. In the 1830s and ’40s, he worked with revolutionary movements in monarchist France, but later became disillusioned with them and turned to occultism.

In 1855–56 Lévi published his masterwork, Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (“Dogma and Ritual of High Magic”), which would, along with his other great work, Histoire de la magie (“History of Magic,” 1860), become the key text of the French occult revival of the late nineteenth century. His impact continues to this day.

Lévi’s reputation extended to Britain in his lifetime; for example, he met and corresponded with Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a best-selling author of works including the classic occult novel Zanoni. (It was said that Bulwer-Lytton initiated Lévi into Rosicrucianism.) But it was really the translations of these two works by the occultist A.E. Waite—Dogme et rituel as Transcendental Magic, published in 1896, and Histoire de la magie as History of Magic, published in 1913—that established Lévi’s name in the English-speaking world.

Lévi was equivocally admired, even by those who learned from him. In The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky called him “the most learned, if not the greatest of the modern Kabalists” and relied on his work, particularly in her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877). But she also wrote that “no other Kabalist has ever had the talent of heaping one contradiction on the other, of making one paradox chase another in the same sentence and in the same flowing language.” Waite often spoke scornfully of Lévi. In one note to his translation he describes him as “a person who believed in prophecy as much and as little as he believed in Latin [Catholic] dogma”—alluding to Lévi’s cagey but rather slippery claims that Roman Catholic doctrine was completely true, except that it was not really true at all.

Waite’s jabs can be irritating, and his prose style was the opposite of graceful. If only for these reasons, this new translation of Lévi’s Dogme et rituel is welcome. Although I have not compared it exhaustively with the original, the few passages I have compared are both accurate and more fluid than Waite’s. Occasionally I sense that a word could have been better rendered. On page 383, this version has “the author of Smarra has remarked in a spiritual manner,” whereas the original says, “comme le remarque spirituellement l’auteur de Smarra.” “Spirituellement” is probably better translated as “wittily”—“witty” is a common meaning for the French spirituel—rather than “spiritually.” (Waite does a little better by rendering it “ingeniously.”) But these glitches are minor and rare. The annotations are helpful in clarifying arcane terms as well as topical references to events in Lévi’s time.

Lévi’s influence was manifold, but here it would be useful to focus on two of his most important contributions. One was the idea of the astral light. This was not new—Blavatsky harrumphed that it was “simply the older ‘sidereal light’”of the sixteenth-century magus Paracelsus—but Lévi gave it new prominence.

Astral light must not be confused with physical starlight. It is a subtle matter, imperceptible to the five senses and to the implements of science. “It is the common mirror of all thoughts and forms,” says Lévi, “the images of all that has been are preserved therein and sketches of things to come, for which reason it is the instrument of thaumaturgy and divination.” In short, the astral light is to thoughts and images what matter is to physical substance—and, like physical matter, is never found in a pure form. But the astral light underlies physical manifestation. Nothing can come into existence unless it first exists as an image in the astral light.

This is the key to magic. If you wish to work magic, you form a mental image as clearly and precisely as you can (that is, you shape a form in the astral light) and then charge it with life force, or prana. The image will then (at least theoretically) be materialized in palpable reality. Similarly, if you wish to know the future, you can use divination to take impressions of the forms in the astral light that are about to manifest. Hence, as Lévi stresses, the astral light, “the great magical agent,” is the key to divination and thaumaturgy. Furthermore, the astral light, like a photographic film, records and retains the images of all that has gone before. These Akashic Records, as they are called, can serve the adept as an archive for exploring past events.
So it is in theory, but of course in practice it is not quite so simple, for reasons that are impossible to explain in this space.

Another of Lévi’s most influential contributions had to do with the Tarot. In his time the Tarot deck was already believed to embody the Ancient Wisdom, particularly of the Egyptians. This had been stated by the French polymath Antoine Court de Gébelin in the eighteenth century. But it was Lévi’s contribution to connect the twenty-two cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, which he said served as the key to all wisdom, to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which the Kabbalists had long said embodied universal knowledge as well. Again, there are certain problems with this claim, but it would change the course of occult history in the West—in the English-speaking world, chiefly through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a short-lived Victorian order of which Waite was a member.

In short, Lévi’s contribution was a powerful one, and his ideas deserve to be grasped by those who are exploring the Ancient Wisdom as it has manifested in the modern West. To this end, this new translation is admirably suited.

Richard Smoley

Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson
Gary Lachman
New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016. xvi + 399 pp., paper, $26.

I saw Colin Wilson just once, in the 1980s, as the invited guest speaker at an annual astrology gathering. I was puzzled by the choice: wasn’t this man a writer of lurid occult novels? But as I quickly learnt, he was also a serious investigator of the mysteries of consciousness and esoteric spiritual teachings. Yet I still left the meeting feeling that he was an enigma—not exactly a teacher, a scientist, or a mystic. So what was he?

Reading Gary Lachman’s biography, I am now more able to place Wilson and his contribution. He wrote over 100 books, including both nonfiction and fiction. His early success came with his first book, The Outsider, in 1956, a study of “a character . . . peculiar to our age, a person with a pressing hunger for meaning and spiritual purpose in a world seemingly bent on denying him these,” as Lachman puts it. This branded Wilson, rather unfairly in Lachman’s view, as one of Britain’s Angry Young Men of 1950s, and early celebrity came crashing down when Wilson fell victim to the wiles of the press, digging dirt wherever they could.

But Wilson went on to redeem his reputation, and to cover topics of philosophical and spiritual interest ranging through the nature of consciousness, the power of the brain, the use of willpower, and the ability of human beings to go “beyond the robot.” He saw the robot as the mechanical part of our natures that can tie up a shoelace and plan for tomorrow, but generally ignores the glory of the present moment.

I was keen to read this book partly because Wilson started off in London’s 1950s Soho coffee-bar scene, a time Lachman describes as the “duffle-coated years, laced with excitement and romanticism.” As I’ve discovered through my own researches, it was a melting pot that generated not only art, literature, and music, but esoteric movements. The Kabbalistic training groups that I became involved with in the 1970s arose directly from these Soho coffee shop meetings. The late Robin Amis was a member of one of these early groups. In his book Views from Mount Athos, he describes a generation whose education had been curtailed by the Second World War: “They began not by questioning a ruined society but by questioning themselves . . . They formed plans for their seedling lives, for which no seed beds had been prepared.” Amis describes them as “non-specialists,” who were willing to investigate, to look and learn wherever the moment took them. The mix included intellectuals, runaways, musicians, astrologers, and artists. Casual work and living from hand to mouth were the norm, and being poor and even homeless was where it was at. Wilson himself lived on Hampstead Heath for one summer, first in a tent, then just in a sleeping bag. He must have fitted well into this milieu, and reminiscences from some members of our own early group affirm that he did appear at some of our Kabbalistic meetings. His novel Adrift in Soho is a charming, whimsical, and wry look at the scene of the time.

Lachman has written a masterly account of the whole spectrum of Wilson’s output, integrating this with the unfolding of his life, beginning as a working-class boy from Leicester. Wilson was an autodidact, completing his education through voracious, obsessive reading. After the drifting of the early years, he ended up, rather touchingly, as a faithful family man based in Cornwall, when he wasn’t pursuing many invitations to lecture all around the world. Beyond the Robot is a remarkable achievement, and is surely the definitive study of Colin Wilson’s life and work.

However, by its very nature, the book makes for dense reading, and to read it cover to cover, one must not only be extremely interested in the whole gamut of Wilson’s writing from early days to final years (he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-two), but also in expositions of existentialism and other sometimes ephemeral philosophical, biological, and psychological theories. The task is ultimately to present Wilson’s own views on and contributions to this panoply of theories. Lachman has tackled this with admirable insight and clarity, but for the less dedicated reader, this may prove more valuable as a reference book.

Which brings me back to this question: was Colin Wilson a man of knowledge, or just a man who knew a lot? He had an encyclopedic mind, and seems to have been very sincere in his approach to esoteric traditions. But as far as I can tell, he did not engage fully with any lineage or tradition. As a meditation teacher once said: “If you go around digging here and there, you won’t have a well. You need to dig deep in once place to find water.” Lachman quotes Wilson himself: “His mind was too rational and purposive, he said, to relax enough to be able to contact the deeper levels associated with the paranormal. His temperament was ‘basically scientific’.” Wilson’s role, I have come to see through Lachman’s study, was that of a trigger for those searching for something beyond the conventional and the mundane. He was able to present ideas as signposts. But they would not provide the way itself.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist is a writer based in the U.K. Her latest book is Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration (Weiser, 2016).


How Soon Is Now? From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation
Daniel Pinchbeck
London: Watkins, 2017. 232 pp., hardcover, $24.95.

In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.

He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.

Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.

An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.

This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.

Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.

We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.

Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.

And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.

I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.

This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.

The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.

One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.

Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.

Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.

Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.

Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, Volume One: The Esotericists
Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2016. viii + 505 pp., paper, $19.99.

One might think that at this late date the history of both the Theosophical Society and the wider milieu of the esoterically inclined during the late nineteenth century have been pretty well picked over. But new evidence keeps emerging that this is hardly the case. The book in hand, Letters to the Sage, offers remarkable evidence that there is still plenty to be dug up about this significant era.

I would be surprised if one in a thousand—or even one in a million—people have heard of Thomas Moore Johnson, the so-called “Sage of the Osage” (1851–1919). Yet this small-town Missouri lawyer (who lived near the Osage River) had an outsized impact on the early survival of the TS, on the spread of its most important rival, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (HBL), and even on the study of Platonism, Islam, and Sufism in the U.S.

Through an unusual bit of good fortune, Johnson’s descendants managed to preserve the Sage’s papers and correspondence, granting researchers Bowen and Paul Johnson access to review and transcribe the trove.

Letters to the Sage is the initial result, a volume devoted to the letters that Johnson received in his correspondence with many of the heavy hitters of early TS and HBL history and with other esotericists. These include Henry Steel Olcott, William Q. Judge, General Abner Doubleday, Anna Kingsford, Edward Maitland, Damodar Mavalankar, G.R.S. Mead, John Yarker, Thomas H. Burgoyne, and various lesser lights. (Unfortunately, Johnson did not make copies of his own handwritten letters to these folks, so these are mostly letters to—not from—the Sage.)

Patrick Bowen’s seventy-five-page introduction ably establishes Johnson’s significance: he edited and published The Platonist, a groundbreaking philosophical journal for a general, not academic, readership; he was a member of the Board of Control of the American TS in the wake of HPB’s and Olcott’s departure for India, establishing the first TS branch beyond New York at a time when the American survival of the TS was up in the air. In the pursuit of “practical occultism” he joined the HBL, became for a time its leader in the U.S., and assisted in the spread of interest in Tarot and astrology.

The letters collected here are presented in alphabetical order by the correspondents’ names, e.g., W.W. Allen, R.C. Bary, A.N. Breneman, J.D. Buck, Josephine Cables, and so on. This provides a more coherent grasp of Johnson’s sequential interactions with each individual. A short biography is provided for each correspondent, indicating their significance and role in fostering occultism and esotericism as the nineteenth century came to a close.

Admittedly, a certain portion of the letters is of the “I am enclosing $2.00 for a subscription to The Platonist” or the “I have not yet received the HBL manuscripts that were promised” variety. These are not exactly riveting, but they capture the travails of esoteric entrepreneurs and seekers trying to politely accommodate one another while nudging them to fulfill their roles as gurus and students.

More valuable for those interested in the history of esotericism are the letters that provide insight into the claims to wisdom and personal revelation. Thus James M. Pryse, a confidant of HPB in her final two years, writes to Johnson in 1887:

Placing the finger-tip in the ear, one can hear the blood coursing through the arteries, also one can, of course, easily hear the “beating” of the heart. Similarly, astral senses hear the astral light singing along the nerves and in the brain, and the musical tones of the heart.

The soul, being a magnetic force, that has created the body, possesses complete knowledge of magnetism, though obscured by its contact with “matter,” as the occultist progresses, the soul regains its knowledge, and the developed will can free the fluidic (or astral) body from the gross body.

Editors Bowen and Johnson show admirable restraint in judging whether Pryse is exhibiting profundity or shooting the esoteric breeze. The material collected here invites the reader to make his or her own judgment, which is a valuable exercise in its own right.

Letters to the Sage is an important contribution to our understanding of the early years of the TS and the HBL. Many of the correspondents collected here were members of both, hedging their bets on which group might deliver the most insightful goods. (The HBL soon faded from the scene, reincarnating later as C.C. Zain’s Church of Light, which survives to this day.)

The next volume of Letters to the Sage promises to provide Johnson’s extensive correspondence with Alexander Wilder, his closest esoteric friend, who incidentally served as editor for Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

Books such as Letters to the Sage are clearly the beneficiaries of the recent revolution in print on demand publishing, which allows small publishers such as Typhon Press to issue books for highly specialized audiences without having to commit to the expense of initial print runs in the thousands. This work may be of primary interest to students of Theosophical and occult history, but the fact that this material is now able to see the light of day is a gift to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the roots of modern esotericism.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.

Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration
Newburyport, Mass.: Weiser, 2016. 295 pp., paper, $18.95

Searching recently for Tarot books, I counted more than seventy titles, not including those with their own sets of cards. In a market so crowded, any new book on Tarot needs to earn its place, and to present the Tarot as more than just a system for crude fortune-telling.

To have spiritual value, any type of divination must offer a deep mirror to the enquirer, telling us what might be called the “unknown knowns”—those things we knew, but didn’t know that we knew. Cherry Gilchrist is well aware of this, and brings to her task several essential assets. With a lifetime’s experience of reading the cards, a clear and readable style, and a balanced sense of that indefinable thing, the esoteric, she combines a realistic sense of the Tarot’s history and an unusual willingness to share her own personal history and experience.

The result is a thoroughly engaging book. Tarot Triumphs opens by immediately evoking our creativity, inviting us to visualize the twenty-two Trumps or Triumphs of the Tarot deck as moving tableaux rolling through the streets during a medieval Italian civic carnival. Well-based historically and delightful to read, the exercise sets the Trumps free: they step off the cards and into three living dimensions.

Equally valuable is Gilchrist’s openness about her own Tarot experiences, sketching her encounters with three “Tarot masters”: people who used Tarot in a way that showed her something profound that stayed with her, even (especially?) if it couldn’t quite be put into words. The nervy young 1960s American under threat of being drafted for Vietnam; the enigmatic, slightly sinister man in Cambridge, England; and the plump, bearded Welshman, an esoteric teacher in London: each shook her a little, showing her a new angle on the cards.

The stories are fascinating, and their message is that Tarot requires personal involvement and that it can become part of one’s life. And, showing that Tarot is anything but a male-dominated tradition, the author records watching an old lady reading Tarot—all seventy-eight cards!—for a young couple in an Italian marketplace in 1972. Indeed, Tarot Triumphs is permeated with a sense of Tarot as a living tradition rather than a New Age fad.

Naturally Tarot Triumphs includes discussion of the individual cards—first, brief “keynote interpretations,” and, later, in-depth, reflective discussions, which always avoid dogmatism. Each card is seen as an emblem for reflection and contemplation. There’s advice on the practicalities and ethics of giving readings, exercises with different spreads, and suggestions about the overall structure of the Trumps, which Gilchrist suggests can be seen as three subsets of seven: cards of being, of interaction, and of higher energy—with the Fool as a wild card. There are fruitful suggestions for practice, including study, visualization and creativity.

Methods are offered for three-, four-, and seven-card readings , including the well-known Celtic Cross layout. And—the book’s most valuable gift—there are instructions for the Fool’s Mirror, a layout of unknown origin taught by Gilchrist’s last Tarot master, Glyn the Welshman.

Having experimented with it several times since first seeing this book, I can testify that the Fool’s Mirror is a particularly rich and rewarding layout. In fact, having tried it, I’m not sure I shall ever want to use any other. Its virtues are many. First, there are safeguards: the Fool in certain positions indicates that a reading should be abandoned; also, since the layout uses all twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, cards like Death or the Hanged Man are expected, and so are less alarming. Secondly, it has drama: the layout is rhythmic and satisfying, and three cards are laid face downward until the main reading is complete: the reading has a touch of suspense, and feels open-ended. And it has completeness. Different areas of the layout, indicating past, present, and future, and outer and inner worlds, intersect. It is particularly effective in inducing an intuitive feel for the situation before detailed reading even starts.

I have only two small quibbles. I would have liked an index: in this richly structured book certain topics can be hard to locate. And I hope the subtitle won’t deter readers who don’t happen to possess the Marseilles Tarot. Users of any authentic Tarot deck would benefit from this book. Indeed, if there’s any Justice (and the lady on that particular card does have her eyes wide open!), Tarot Triumphs is destined to become a classic.

Grevel Lindop

Grevel Lindop is a poet, travel writer, and biographer. His recent books include Luna Park (Carcanet Press) and Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press). You can read his blog at