New York: TarcherPerigree, 2018. xxii + 234 pp., paper, $17.
It is always a pleasure to read a new book by Gary Lachman, as there are few writers in the field of esoteric and occult studies who write as clearly and engagingly while also maintaining a mind-boggling level of output. Like his mentor and literary hero Colin Wilson, Lachman (a longtime Quest contributor) has the gift of digesting an array of ideas, theories, historical details, and mostly obscure thinkers, and rendering up highly readable books that avoid both scholarly nitpicking and pop sensationalism.
Dark Star Rising is no exception and, for bonus points, it may be Lachman’s most timely book, given its relevance to the Age of Trump, which continues to unfold on a daily basis.
To briefly summarize, Lachman starts out pondering the possible causes behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and, for millions, perplexing election victory. Rather than focusing on theories about Russian meddling, Lachman notes several factors that may have eluded most people’s attention.
One is Trump’s decades of practicing Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking (most famously described in his best-selling book of that title). Trump’s father introduced his son to Peale’s perspective in the 1950s and initiated his lifelong attendance at Peale’s Manhattan church. Lachman explores the history of New Thought, the hugely influential spiritual movement that blossomed in the late nineteenth century and counted Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Ernest Holmes’s Science of Mind among its propagators. Peale was perhaps the most famous of its exponents.
In a nutshell, New Thought teaches that we create our own reality through the thoughts we cultivate; that our individual minds are a manifestation of the universal mind or intelligence; and that if we wish to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, we can attract those states through prayer, creative visualization, a positive attitude, and maintaining a faith that the bounty of life can be ours.
Lachman suggests that Trump’s insistence on his own positively defined reality, which strikes so many as delusional or sociopathic, is rather an ingrained case of positive thinking, which for the most part has served him well throughout his life (taking him to the White House, for example).
Lachman also notes the pervasive influence of postmodernist theories that have saturated academia and oozed into Western culture at large. Rejecting the grand narratives of historical and cultural explanation that have characterized modernity, postmodernism has championed the rise of a subjective fracturing of the notion of truth. This feeds into the present space, where consensus reality has broken down. Accusations of “fake news” arise from both left and right, exacerbating the sense that everything is just a matter of interpretation. “You create your own reality,” indeed.
Lachman also examines the Internet-based phenomenon of meme propagation, which amounts to the rapid spread in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4Chan) of catchphrases, images, and clusters of ideas that have widespread social influence. According to Lachman, these resemble the practices of Chaos Magick and the sigil-based magick of Austin Osman Spare. (This spelling of magick originated with occultist Aleister Crowley, who used it to distinguish occult magic from the sleight-of-hand variety. Chaos Magick uses unorthodox, often ad hoc, ritual forms and stresses the subjective nature of belief.) In other words, the “anything goes” meme propagators of the alt-right, who spread the cartoon image of Pepe the Frog in mockery of progressives, may have been unknowingly (or not) using an esoteric practice that harnesses the power of intention, will, and mental energy to produce real-world results. As unlikely as this may seem, Lachman makes a plausible case for it.
The most extended section of Dark Star Rising ponders the influence of Traditionalism on current political trends. This includes both the Traditionalism of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon on the one hand and the more politicized version of Julius Evola on the other. Most curious among the defenders of Tradition in this sense is Alexander Dugin, a Russian intellectual who has bounced between supporting National Bolshevism, a Russian “red-brown” mixture of Stalinism and fascism, and Eurasianism, a geopolitical strategy that tries to cast Russia and its surrounding countries as an allied bloc. Given that Dugin identifies with the Traditionalist philosophy of Evola and savors the “positive” aspects of Stalinism and Nazism (whatever those may be), he is a controversial figure, to say the least. Lachman sees Dugin’s Eurasianism as a significant influence on Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore Russia as a geopolitical force.
But here too postmodernism may have the last laugh. If truth is up for grabs, and powerful rulers see fit to create their own realities, we may need to harness our own mental capacities and visualize a future that trumps those of both Putin and Trump.
In any event, Dark Star Rising is a stimulating read, and a provocative meditation on the hidden forces at work in our present juncture. Its timeliness, which is its greatest strength, may prove its greatest weakness a few years down the line. But for the time being, it serves as one of the most acute studies of the present moment.
Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.