Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists

GARY LACHMAN
Wheaton: Quest, 2014. x + 214 pp., paper, $19.95.

Compilations of essays don’t always make for satisfying reading. Linked together in book form, the content can seem inconsistent, patchy, or repetitive. However, this book is a triumph, with a strong identity of its own, even though the essays were all individual articles, written for different publications over a period of fifteen years or so. Lachman brings them together in a coherent whole, creating a kind of portrait gallery for us, like a sequence of stained glass windows in a dignified old manor house. Each window tells a story, and Lachman makes sure that there is a story to tell, as he leads us from one luminary to another. The range is wide, within the esoteric field: Dion Fortune, P.D. Ouspensky, C.G. Jung, and Éliphas Lévi, to name some of the better-known figures, and Jean Gebser, Jan Potocki, and Owen Barfield as examples of those less well-known, but—as Lachman points out—deserving a more prominent place in history. Take the gallery tour; you’ll enjoy it.

Each chapter left me eager to start another encounter with these “revolutionaries of the soul.” It’s also a book that you can dip into, one that you can read in any order you want to, or enjoy making your way through steadily, from start to finish. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, it was my favorite reading—although I did avoid chapters involving black magic and suicides at those times!

Lachman’s great strength is that he gives us the person as well as his or her lofty or spiritual ideas. His aim is not to debunk when he reveals that Manly Palmer Hall was addicted to doughnuts and Ouspensky to alcohol, or that James Webb, author of The Occult Underground and other works, was arguably psychotic; he shows us that great teachers and thinkers struggle as we do with the pressures of life, and sometimes do remarkable things against the odds of their background, their constitution, or the difficulties that confront them. If we fail to accept that great teachers have foibles, we risk deifying them—and that can be very dangerous, for all concerned. I therefore appreciated the author’s way of describing his subjects with humor and affection, as well as paying tribute to their achievements. Sometimes his style is a little light or casual, but it is always engaging and genuine.

He also discerns the remarkable influence that some of these characters have had on mainstream culture, which is not always acknowledged. Ouspensky, he points out, directly helped to shape ideas in the poems of T.S. Eliot and the writings of J.B. Priestley. Manly P. Hall’s admirers included astronaut Edgar Mitchell and politician Harry S. Truman—along with Elvis Presley! I have a keen interest on how the esoteric meets the outside world, and influences the course of everyday life. (In my book Explore Alchemy, I have written about how alchemy influenced the composer Monteverdi, changing the course of music in the Western world.) Lachman helps to bring esoteric teaching out of the shadows, where it has often been considered unacceptable territory for academics to enter.

I can’t say for sure whether Lachman has included much new research. I had just finished reading Joyce Collin-
Smith’s autobiography, Call No Man Master, which talks in detail about James Webb, and I couldn’t find much additional material in Lachman’s essay “The Strange Death of James Webb.” I didn’t find that a problem, though, as he has the gift of bringing the person to life, and through his eyes I could see Webb more clearly. The only essay where he fails to do that, in my view, is the one on Julius Evola, a figure who comes across as more remote and less interesting. And, inevitably, some research will have moved on since Lachman wrote his original articles. “Colin Wilson and Faculty X” was published in 1995, and ideas on brain function and consciousness, as expounded by Wilson, surely need reevaluating in the light of current research.

But these are slight drawbacks, and the way in which Lachman includes his personal experiences (wryly describing a time when he considered Aleister Crowley “cool”) and face-to-face interviews (as with Owen Barfield) ensure that the studies are fresh and intriguing.

Lachman’s book is a welcome addition to my shelf, and one that I shall be dipping into for years to come, when I want a digestible approach to Swedenborg, an anecdote about Mme. Blavatsky, or a crystalline portrait of Rudolf Steiner. He has done a good job, benefiting all of us.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist is the author of a number of books including Explore Alchemy and The Tree of Life Oracle. Her article “The Open Secret of the Esoteric Orders” appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Quest.


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