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Return of the Dark Side

It’s a truism of psychoanalysis and other forms of depth psychology that, although we would very much like it to, the repressed does not go away. It has instead the inconvenient habit of turning up in the most unlikely places. William Blake, no friend of repression, grasped this a century before Freud when, in Vala, or the Four Zoas, he said that “When Thought is clos’d in Caves, Then love shall shew its root in deepest Hell.” What Blake means is that when the imagination is kept from its natural, spontaneous expression, it turns sour and will seek out any way to manifest. The result, as any analyst knows, can be disturbing. And although we may not go so far as Blake does in one of his “proverbs of hell,” declaring that we should “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle then nurse unacted desires,” we get his point. Blake was not, I think, advocating infanticide, but recognising that the murder of our own spontaneity and innocence is a way of what we could call “killing the child within.”

The repression that Blake railed against was what he called “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” What is that? It is the vision of the neat, orderly, rational, scientific clockwork universe that Newton quite inadvertently ushered in, bringing us the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. I say Newton did this inadvertently, because, as John Maynard Keynes said long ago, Newton was not the “first of the age of reason,” but the “last of the magicians,” referring to Newton’s long interest in alchemy and such arcane pursuits as predicting that the end of the world would arrive around the middle of the twenty-first century. This is a sobering thought that at least gives us a few years yet, but we may take comfort in the fact that Newton also predicted that Christ would return in 1948, which, as far as I can tell, was a no show. Yet reflections on the end times, unfortunately enough, are not out of place today.

In my book The Secret Teachers of the Western World (2015), a history of what we might call the alternative or counter-tradition to the Enlightenment, the western Hermetic or Esoteric tradition, I suggest that at the start of the seventeenth century, the nascent scientific – soon to become scientistic – sensibility launched an all-out attack on the until then very prestigious Hermetic sciences. The fact that Newton wrote more about alchemy then he did about gravity, and that gravity itself is an “occult,” that is “unseen” force, alone tells us that the “dark arts” were once held in high esteem. Yet, through a combination of a rising reductive, materialist science, a church keen to stamp out any form of “magic,” and the sharp eye of some humanist scholars, the prestige the Hermetic tradition had enjoyed for centuries, dissolved. Hermes Trismegistus, master of magic and teacher of wisdom, founder of the perennial philosophy and prisca theologia - the primal revelation about man, God and the cosmos - lost his street cred and was outed as a myth. By the end of the century and the beginning of the next, what had until then been an intellectual and spiritual heritage of the teachings of Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah and their influential new forms emerging in the Renaissance, was well on its way to becoming what the pioneer historian of the occult, James Webb, christened a “reservoir of rejected knowledge.”

Why was this knowledge rejected? Because it failed to meet the criteria of “real” knowledge established by the new regime. For something to qualify as knowledge or as “real,” the new approach demanded that it be grasped by the senses and proven by measurement. It had to submit to being quantified. And this was something the now “rejected knowledge” could not do. It’s source was not the external, visible, measurable world, but the inner, invisible, spiritual one, the occult, the unseen. For the new crew, this was unacceptable. It allowed the church to operate in those areas – at least for the time being – but would not suffer a rival. The church felt the same. It conceded ground to the rising science, but it rejected any form of magic, which seemed a dubious combination of natural philosophy – astrology, alchemy – and its own patch, the soul.

So the magical side of human life, what we might call “the dark side of the mind,” was rejected and subjected to an all-out character assassination, the effects of which, four centuries later, we are still feeling. To be sure, over the centuries there have been periodic outbreaks of occultism, simply because, whether we like it or not, the occult is part of us. The “Rosicrucian furore” swept Europe just as Hermes Trismegistus was seen to be a fiction; the seventeenth century itself was the heyday of western alchemy. The eighteenth century saw the rise of Freemasonry, Swedenborg’s remarkable accounts of his journeys to heaven and hell, Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” – which led to the discovery of hypnotism – and the colourful careers of half sage/half charlatans like Cagliostro and the Comte de Saint-Germain. Spiritualism spread like wildfire in the nineteenth century; from it emerged the redoubtable Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, from whose ample numbers went forth numerous mystical offshoots. And in the twentieth century, in the 1960s, a burgeoning youth culture and a growing psychedelic movement combined with yet another occult revival to produce a grassroots magical renaissance, that had the most famous people in the world, the Beatles, at its head.

Proof of this is the inclusion of Aleister Crowley, the infamous twentieth century magician and all around bad boy, as well as C. G. Jung and Aldous Huxley, on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Huxley, of course, had popularised the use of psychedelics and edited an anthology of mystical writings called The Perennial Philosophy. Jung would most likely demur about being in this line up, but more than anyone else in the twentieth century, he was the most respectable figure to reintroduce Newton’s favourite pastime, alchemy, to contemporary minds and he gave his imprimatur to such mystical disciplines as Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, astrology, the I Ching, flying saucers and the Age of Aquarius. And by the late 1970s, the pop esotericism of the love generation had become more or less domesticated, leading on one hand to a genre of what I call “roccult and roll” among heavy metal enthusiasts – think Black Sabbath - and the New Age, with us now for some time.

We might think that with the widespread popularity today of yoga, meditation, and a variety of other “mind, body and spirit” pursuits, that some of the knowledge and the means of acquiring it rejected with the rise of what we know as science, has found a place in the postmodern world. Humble, to be sure, and perpetually subjected to snide criticism by sharp-minded rationalists, but still a sustainable niche. But I wonder. Because in recent years much of what had been rejected centuries ago and kept under wraps since then seems to have erupted and “shown its root in deepest hell, “ or at least in a very unlikely place. I’m speaking about the “occult politics” that have been with us now at least since ex-US president Donald Trump threw his hat into the ring in the dim pre-Covid days of 2015. After that, what had been hovering on the margins of the mind found itself at centre stage.

In Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018) I look at the strange “magical politics” that surrounded Trump’s campaign and the early days of his administration. The inspiration for the book were reports that the once newsworthy alt-right had used “chaos magic” to help Trump win the election. Chaos magic is a peculiar postmodern magical practice that avoids the traditional magical impedimenta – circles, candles, wands etc. – and uses whatever is at hand, a kind of DIY sorcery. In this case, what were at hand were internet memes featuring the hitherto innocuous cartoon character Pepe the Frog, now commandeered as a far-right magical talisman. By flooding the net with images of Pepe as Trump and in various other guises, the idea was to perform an act of “synchromysticism,” an information age update on Jung’s synchronicity, in which what happens on the net is mirrored in “real life.” Other items soon came to light. One was Trump’s own devotion to a Christianised form of magic, Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking.” Trump absorbed Peale’s central dictum – borrowed from Karl Menninger – that “facts don’t matter, only our attitude toward them does.” With the inauguration, both of his presidency and the era of “post truth” and “alternative facts,” we can get an idea of Trump’s attitude. Oddly, as I point out in the book, leftish academic fads like deconstructionism and postmodernism, which reject any notion of a stable “truth” or “reality,” ironically paved the way for a populist demagogue.

We can even say that Trump “magically” prepared for his time in office, by adopting the image of himself as president during his term on The Apprentice. Imagination then became reality. The whole phenomena of reality TV can be seen as a form of magic, in which the simulation becomes the “real thing” and vice versa. More disturbing perhaps was the fact that Steve Bannon, Trump’s then lieutenant and the conduit through his Breitbart website for the alt-right, was a reader of Julius Evola. Evola was a twentieth century Italian esoteric thinker with far-right leanings who ingratiated himself with Mussolini and National Socialism. Post WWII he was the grey eminence behind several neo-Fascist movements in Italy. Most recently he was one of the intellectual big guns rolled out by the alt-right, to show that they were something more than skinhead thugs. Evola belongs to a particular school of esoteric philosophy known as Traditionalism, which proffers a kind of “fundamentalist spirituality.” His attitude toward modernity can be gleaned from the title of what his readers consider his magnum opus, Revolt Against the Modern World. Like the alt-right and Trump, Evola tried to magically influence Mussolini’s actions. And he is also a link between occult politics US style, and the kind we can find in Mother Russia.

I wrote about Russia in Dark Star Rising, how Putin’s spin doctor Vladislav Surkov had created an entire “virtual reality” society through the state control of practically all media, maintaining across an entire network the kind of “alternative fact” act that Trump was performing as a one man show. But more disturbing was the influence that a Russian reader of Julius Evola seemed to have on Putin’s plans for the future. This was Alexander Dugin, who turns up in the political pages these days as “Putin’s Rasputin.” The analogy is inevitable but inaccurate and unfair to Rasputin. Dugin has had a peculiar trajectory. Starting in the 1980s as an anti-Soviet punk dissident, through a series of ideological quick change acts and various far-right, proto-fascist guises, he ended up lecturing on geopolitics to generals at the Kremlin. During the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, when asked what the Russians should do with the Ukrainians, his reply was “Kill them.” Today is attitude is not much different.

Along with being a reader of Evola, a fellow-traveller with the alt-right, and having more than a passing interest in chaos magic, Dugin is the proponent of a disturbing vision of global conflict. Reviving a theory put forth more than a century ago by Sir Halford Mackinder, Dugin believes that throughout history there has been one single battle, enacted in different forms and with different players, yet centred on one archetypal opposition. This is the perennial struggle between the sea-faring, mercantile nations, known as the Atlanticists, and the Motherland, the largest landmass on the planet, Eurasia, home of tradition. Dugin borrows from Oswald Spengler the notion that the west is in decline (as Spengler presented this in The Decline of the West a century ago, we seem to be taking our time; perhaps it is more the “recline of the west”) and that a new civilization – not nation or state – is emerging in the east as the west goes under.

This new civilization is the “Eurasia” that Putin has alluded to in speeches over the past several years. This new civilization has its own view of reality, its own way of being, which is often incomprehensible to the west. Dugin envisions a new Eurasian civilization stretching from “Vladivostok to Dublin,” which suggests that if Putin is listening to him, he may not be satisfied with absorbing Ukraine.

We should also note that Dugin is positively itching to help the west go under and he speaks darkly of some imminent final smack-down between these two primordial opponents. When we remember that NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, we might look up Mackinder’s ideas and run through them again. The Russian religious existentialist Nicolai Berdyaev said that Russians were people of extremes, either “apocalyptist” or “nihilists;” for them it was the millennium or the void. One hopes he was wrong and that talk of “tactical nuclear strikes” is only warhead rattling. This battle between the sea-faring Atlanticists and the more traditional Eurasianists has been repackaged more recently by Dugin as the opposition between a hyper-liberal and commodifying west, eager to turn the planet into a global market place in which anything, reality itself, is on sale, and the traditional east, upholding the standard of “traditional values” against the corrosive rot of globalisation and everything that comes with it. Unfortunately, this anti-western free market rhetoric has led some, understandably disenchanted with capitalism, to embrace a cure worse than the disease.

Other motives led Putin to invading Ukraine. In The Return of Holy Russia (2020), I point out that Russian history begins in Ukraine. When Prince Vladimir I, ruler of Kievan Rus, converted from his native Slavic paganism to Greek Orthodox Christianity in AD 898, the Rus’ became the “God-bearing people” and began their destiny as “Holy Russia.” Putin seems to identify with Vladimir I. In 2014 Putin brought back a stone from Kherson, where Vladimir I was baptised a Christian; the city is now in Russian hands. That stone became the foundation stone of a sixty-foot statue of Vladimir I, erected and consecrated by the church just outside the Kremlin in 2015. Other notions, like that of Moscow becoming the “Third Rome,” after the fall of the first to the Goths and the second, Constantinople, to the Turks, inform what we might call the Holy Russia meme.

One inspiration for The Return of Holy Russia is Putin’s attempt to revive the religious, spiritual, and mystical heritage Russia embraced before the Bolshevik Revolution. The years just before Lenin seized power are known in Russian history as the Silver Age, and Putin has looked back to it, anxious to exploit the remarkable creative efforts of this time. One sage of the Silver Age who has had a powerful influence on Putin is Ivan Ilyin, a theocratic religious political philosopher, who envisioned the kind of union between church and state that was in place during the time of Ivan the Terrible. If we remember the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov we can get an idea of his views. In the 1950s, as the voice of European White Russians, Ilyin spelled out what would happen when, as he knew it would, the Soviet Union collapsed. In “What the Dismemberment of Russia Means for the World,” Ilyin predicted that with the collapse of the USSR would come the ”Balkanisation of Russia,” the parcelling out of its organic unity – think of the German Volk but with a Christian stamp – into smaller, independent entities that the west would absorb. What would also happen is the chaos that would ensue when western economic and social ideas failed to take hold, and the rise of a strong man to bring the nation together. Putin read Ilyin’s essay and agreed, and his aim to regain the “near abroad,” the lands lost with the collapse of the USSR, goes hand in hand with his repackaging of Russia as the last bastion of the true faith.

What does this mean? It may mean that the magical, mythical, spiritual side of the psyche, that the west has repressed for some time now and which, even with all the New Age bells and whistles, it still hasn’t integrated in any serious way into its conscious outlook, is popping up in some unlikely and inconvenient places. Does this mean that Putin and a revived Holy Russia are the remedy, a means for the west to regain its soul? No. But it may mean that we need to throw more light and awareness on a side of the mind and ourselves we have ignored for too long. Otherwise it will remain a region where the far-right meet the far-out, leaving we enlightened ones in the dark.

(An edited version of this essay appeared in New Associations, the in-house journal of the British Psychoanalytic Council.)

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