Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Gary Lachman: I’m the author of twenty-two books on consciousness, culture, and the western esoteric tradition – at least that’s what my CV says. In an earlier life, I was a founding member of the rock band Blondie. I played with them from 1975 to 1977, during our early days in NYC, and on the first two albums. Some songs of mine were hits in Europe and the UK, and in 2006 I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I had my own band, the Know, from 1978 to 1980 and in 1981 I played on two North American tours as a guitarist with Iggy Pop. I retired from rock and roll after that. From 1984 to 1990 I earned a BA in philosophy. From 1993 to 94, or thereabouts, I started and soon abandoned a PhD track in English Lit at the University of Southern California. Political correctness did me in. After that I worked for a year as a Science Writer for UCLA. My marriage exploded around this time and the shock waves sent me across the US and the Atlantic, and deposited me here, in London, were I’ve lived and worked as a full time freelance writer and independent thinker since 1996. I write for several journals in the UK, US, and Europe – more CV stuff- my books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and I lectured widely on my work.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical ideas?
GL: The central influence on me has been the British writer Colin Wilson, about whom I’ve written a biographical study, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. Wilson shot to fame in 1956 with his first book, The Outsider, a study of alienation and extreme mental states, written at the age of 24. He soon became a literary persona non grata among the British literary establishment, but went on to write close to 200 books. He died in 2013 at the age of 82. I first read him in 1975, when I was living in an illegal loft space on NYC’s Bowery with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist (I played bass) near to the famous club, CBGB, that gave birth to Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie, among other groups. The book was The Occult, Wilson’s “comeback” book, published in 1971. It was a brilliant, comprehensive, intellectually exciting and very readable history of the occult and our “hidden powers”, from prehistoric man up to contemporary times. I had no previous interest in this, but Wilson wrote about it from the perspective of existentialism and the philosophy of consciousness, and I had read a great deal of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and that crew. It literally changed my life. From that point, I spent the next several years, during my entire tenure in music, seeking out his books. I made a pilgrimage to his home in the far west of Cornwall, England, in 1983, and we remained friends until his death thirty years later. He was a mentor and exemplar and any modicum of readability my own books may possess comes from reading and re-reading his work obsessively.
RB: What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?
GL: Imagination is one of those indefinable things we all know so well. As St. Augustine said when asked to answer the question “What is time,” – “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” It is among those elements of human experience that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said were “incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves.” Meaning, that if we try to define the imagination, we will have to use terms that also beg definition. My favourite definition, though, comes from Wilson. He said imagination is “the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.”
RB: Can you say something about your book, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, in particular, what knowledge has been lost?
GL: The title comes from the poet, essayist and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine. She spoke of a “lost” or “rejected” knowledge of the imagination, which she found at the heart of Blake’s work, but also in that of other poets such as Yeats, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats – in essence, the Romantics. By this she meant both knowledge of the imagination, and also knowledge provided by the imagination. Imagination for her, as for Blake and the others, is not a substitute for reality or a means of escaping it. It is in fact the source of what we call reality. In this she was reaffirming an insight that was at the heart of western consciousness until the rise of the dominance of what we have come to know as science, at the beginning of the 17th century. We can find it in Plato and the Hermetic tradition. Fundamentally, the knowledge of the imagination concerns the “inside” of reality. The knowledge we are familiar with and which for us constitutes “real” knowledge, is concerned with the “outside,” the material, physical world, which we can measure and control. You can’t measure imagination.
In the book I look at different ways of understanding this, through the work of people like Raine, Goethe, the French phenomenologist and scholar of Persian mysticism Henry Corbin, the Inkling and philosopher of language Owen Barfield – friend of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien – and others such as the German write Ernst Junger and the historian Jacques Barzun, to name a few.
RB: There is little that shapes the human experience as profoundly and pervasively as creativity. What is the relation between creativity and imagination?
GL: One of the ideas I explore is Coleridge’s distinction between Imagination and Fancy or Fantasy. True imagination – a phrase that comes from the Swiss Renaissance alchemist and healer Paracelsus – is creative in the sense that it reaches into the “origin” of things. In that way it is “original,” even if what it produces is familiar. One of the points I make is that true beauty always has this sense of the familiar, of being from or about a place we have never been but know very well. It reminds us of our origins in the spiritual spheres, or whatever you’d like to call them, before we dropped to this less comfortable place we call the world. True beauty is painful because it reminds us of our true home. Fancy or Fantasy according to Coleridge may be “novel,” but it is not creative or “original,” however “new” it may seem. Its novelty comes from taking what already exists and forming unlikely combinations with it. In this sense movements like surrealism are concerned with fancy, not imagination. It speaks of the “unlikely juxtaposition of an umbrella on an operating table,” and things like that. An even more likely suspect here is postmodernism, which does nothing but take what has already been created and Velcro it together with other bits and pieces. A flying pig is a work of fancy. Postmodernism, for my money, has produced a lot of flying pigs.
RB: Is the imagination a way of escaping reality or a way of knowing it more profoundly?
GL: In the sense of fantasy or wishful thinking imagination can be an escape from reality. Or it can be used as a kind of extension of existing reality, in the sense of being at the ”cutting edge” of “innovative technology” and all that sort of rhetoric. But as I say in the book, for me, imagination isn’t about “make believe,” but about “making real.” It realizes things, makes them real. We may know something, but when imagination kicks in, we really know it. A good example that Wilson gives is of the famous scene at the opening of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, when Marcel tastes the madeleine. Suddenly the memory of his childhood holidays in Combray comes back to him. He already knew that he spent his childhood holidays there, but when he tastes the madeleine, the memory of his aunt giving him a bit of madeleine in a spoonful of tea when he was boy, suddenly floods him and he then really knows, in a kind of 3D HD intensity. Knowing in this way brings not only knowledge of the fact but also of its reality. Sadly most of us live at a kind of “half volume” and it is only in rare moments of joy or crisis that we feel this. This is one of the problems with human consciousness that Wilson spent his life trying to understand and overcome. He made some very significant headway and that is why I consider him one of the most important and overlooked thinkers of the last and this century.
RB: Are rational thinking and mysticism at odds with one another?
GL: No. We need to think rationally about mysticism in order to understand its relation to consciousness. In many ways, mysticism is consciousness operating at full speed, with all its burners. Mysticism is consciousness working as it should. This is something people like William James understood a century or more ago. It is not a special, God given grace, but a potential of consciousness that we are unaware of and so never try to explore. Wilson applied the analytical and descriptive tools of phenomenology to precisely this question.
RB: Can the imaginative capacity sometimes be a hindrance and restrictive?
GL: It depends what you mean. If you mean fancy or fantasy in the form of day-dreaming then yes. But then, that isn’t imagination. As Raine said, imagination doesn’t see different things, it sees things differently. Of course, we have to maintain our critical faculties. The German poet Schiller dealt with this in his remarkable Letters on Aesthetic Education, in which fundamentally he argues for the need to develop a dialogue between the creative and critical functions of the mind. In contemporary neurological terms, this means developing a conscious exchange between the right and left cerebral hemispheres, or, more generally, between the unconscious and conscious minds. I am trying to do that right now, as I answer these questions, formulating the insights that pop up in response to them into halfway readable and understandable answers.
RB: How do you, or how would you like to, see the future philosophical and psychological exploration of our imaginative capacities progressing?
GL: I think the first thing would be to get away from seeing imagination in a utilitarian sense, as something we can harness to be “more creative” and so on. We need to see and grasp what imagination tells us about the world and ourselves in itself, not in terms of how we can “use” it for this or that purpose. That would mean getting back to perspective in which the good, true, and beautiful are important, meaningful “ends in themselves,” not means to any end. But that would mean trying to understand Plato, and for we post-postmoderns, that’s asking a lot. But everything of any value in human life depends on it. Imagination is about reality. It’s time we got real.
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