The Secret Teachers of the Western World
A conversation on the hidden, lost, and suppressed knowledge of the Western World.
Gary Lachman is the author of many books on topics ranging from the evolution of consciousness to literary suicides, popular culture, and the history of the occult. As Gary Valentine, he was a founding member of the pop group Blondie and in 2006 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Adam Jacobs: So I am excited to discuss this book with you, Secret Teachers of the Western World, which I have to say (I read a decent amount of books), I was enthralled by this book. It was like a page-turner for me. And I felt as I was reading it that you were hitting so many different points that I stumbled upon in the past and sort of considered to myself, but you were sort of giving it a voice that I wasn't accustomed to. And so it sort of took me by surprise in a good way. And I honestly feel that it's very important what you have written and therefore wanted to sort of mine it with you for a bit and try to draw certain conclusions or possibilities from it.
But just to sort of frame it, you're talking about secret wisdom. You're talking about knowledge. Some of it may have been popular at one point and has had a significant influence on Western culture and the world over actually, but has been either forgotten, forced underground, shunned, blocked, or rejected in some fashion or another. Can you just tell us a little bit about maybe how you got interested in this one and also why is it that this information, this knowledge has been suppressed in so many different cultures do you think?
Gary Lachman: Well, first off, I want to say thank you very much for having me on the show, and I'm very flattered that you found the book a page-turner. I mean, more than anything else, that’s what every writer really wants—they can’t put it down. So thank you. But well, my interest in the sort of tradition, let's say, that I write about and Secret Teachers of the Western World, which we can broadly call the Hermetic Tradition, and that covers a lot of bases actually. That started quite some time ago when I was a musician and I was living in New York and I was playing in the then-unknown band Blondie (later to become very well known). And I was living with Chris Stein and Debbie Harry in a loft space on the Bowery just a block or so from CBGB, which was the club where everybody was playing the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and so on and so on.
And I really had no interest in the occult or mysticism or magic aside from weird fiction, HP Lovecraft, old forties horror films, and things like that. But I didn't take any really seriously. I was a reader, I always read quite a lot, but I just wasn't into that. But in the place we were living in, there was this wild, flamboyant gay biker artist who was into Alistair Crowley, who was the dark magician of the last century and influenced everybody up to the Beatles and so on and so on. He had a tarot deck and he’d do these impromptu tarot readings and he was painting these sort of canvases based on some of 'em. And then the books were around. And then one book that was around it was this, a book called The Occult. It was by a British writer named Colin Wilson, and it just was such a readable book as you very kindly said about my book.
I mean, any facility I might have in that came from reading that book first and then subsequently reading all of Wilson's books. I eventually met him and I wrote a book about him and so on and so on. But I just became enthralled because it wasn't just horror stories or ghost stories. He was looking at it philosophically but was a very, very good writer. But it just crackled with ideas. And I was about 19, so I was very impressionable. So that's when it started.
And how I came to write this particular one many years later, well, I'd already written a few books for my editor at the time Mitch Horowitz at Penguin and a biography of Rudolph Steiner and I think Swedenborg and some others. And then I had, well, this particular book, I look at this whole tradition, which depending on how you want to look at it, where its roots are, but the sort of visible roots go back to sort of the early Christian era and sort Greco Roman, Egypt, Alexandria. And we have the rise of the Hermetics and Gnostics and neo-platonism and a variety of other, more mystical, for sake of a better word, philosophies and views of the world. And actually, that tradition had a certain prestige for a great many centuries in Western culture, but it fell foul of the rise of what we consider to be sort of science in the early 17th century. But it never went away.
And it always remained in popular forms like the astrology column in the newspaper, but also in serious kinds of pursuit. What I did with this particular book was that I had read a book called The Master and His Emissary, which is by Ian McGilchrist, who's a neuroscientist and an English professor as well. And I mean to try and do it short, he rebooted the whole sort of left brain kind of dialectic, which people weren't dealing with because it had become too popular with pop science and things of that sort.
But he realized there really was something there, but it wasn't so much what the two brains do. It is how they did things and make it simple. The left brain's very analytical and sequential and logical, and it breaks things down into bits and pieces that it can manipulate and it's sort of necessary. This is sort of in order to deal with the world. It's a sort of brain that deals with the world and has this remarkable ability to focus with this laser-like precision and accuracy. But it does that at the expense of losing the connection to everything else. And according to the McGilchrist, the right branch presents a kind of whole, a total gestalt of the given, and it's a much more living.
And it isn't about dealing with things, it's just being so I make it simple. I bring this simple formula. If the left brain is about taking care of business, the right brain is about taking care of isness. “iskheit” as Eckhart talks, and I look at the Western esoteric hermetic tradition as a kind of tradition of right brain knowledge. And one of the things that McGilchrist says is that in the last few centuries, this creative balance, a kind of system of checks and balances between the two brains has got a bit askew because the left brain has been gaining more and more control. And what it likes to do more than anything else is recreate everything around it as something it knows already.
So it breaks everything down into some kind of very familiar picture, and it excludes anything that doesn't go with that or add to that. And so McGilchrist's argument is that the left brain in a way has its position. It was created. It's the emissary that's taken power away from the master. The right brain is historically older. And I mean I'm narrowing it down very simple, the story, but it sort of created the left brain as a helper in order to unpack this total picture. The beingness is there and then it's all there. And the left brain is this focus. It's kind of like a magnifying glass in a way in order to, okay, how do I unpack all this and I have to survive as well. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher of the last century said, the brain is the organ of attention to life.
We have to deal with things. So any case that's sort of the motor or the thematic narrative. Okay, so can we understand this other tradition which if indeed as McGilchrist says, the left brain has usurped power and become dominant. It did historically to me, I say it seems when the early 17th century, this tradition suffered a complete loss of kind of prestige under combined, strange enough combined attack by this rising natural philosophy, (science) and all that. And the church at the time, they kind of joined forces to eliminate this other rival. So any case that's sort of the theme and I kind of tell its history.
Adam Jacobs: So that opens up such a can of worms. There are so many important questions. It seems to me just based on what you're outlining in terms of what Dr. McGilchrist is talking about. So let me see if I can ask a couple of clarifying questions. First of all, the notion of one part of the brain being older than another and somehow fusing together, and I know there's a third part of the brain that's considered even older. I don't know that there's any specific evidence for that. I mean, ostensibly there is, but it's a funny idea that somehow these almost two separate organs got fused together in one small spot and so know how to interface. It's almost like personifying the brains.
And the way you describe it in the book, it's almost like the left brain made a deliberate assault on the right brain consciously to reduce or usurp its power, which also strikes me as wild, a wild idea to consider. However, at the same time, it seems patently obvious that the left brain is utterly dominant in our current society to our detriment. And I've been advocating for a long time, and this is all outlined in sefirotic thought in Kabbalah, which is what I'm interested in mostly.
And there is a right brain sort of energy and there's a left brain sort of energy and there's a fusion of those two, which is considered balanced. And so I've been trying to advocate, I didn't realize I was advocating gnosticism on some level. I was advocating that people get in touch with their rightness, whether it's the right brain or the sphere of “chesed” to get in touch with the broader picture and scope of what the world actually is and not having it being so filtered out by the left brain in its analysis—as important as that can be. So I just threw out a couple of things, but age of the brain, the assault of the left brain being out of balance. What can you say about those things?
Gary Lachman: Well, I mean one of the things that struck me, that lines that sort of narrative up, and I mean even McGilchrist says in the Master Emissary that it does sound like there's intent behind perhaps, I mean the identity. I mean our isess, what we recognize as I or me more or less housed in the left brain because the left brain is the one that deals with language and that sort of thing. And next door we have a neighbor who's strangely enough also ourselves, but not ourselves, or we are it in some way whom we know to some degree but don't know very well. But Paul McLean, this was something that Arthur Kessler wrote about. I mean he's voiced in the past with the sort of triune brain. You have sort of the reptilian and then the mammalian and then the cerebral cortex and all that. And then other people talk about the cerebellum. This kind of first dry run for a kind of cerebrum, and then somehow, the thing about Kessler, the interesting thing he says is that you look at sort of evolution.
He says there's all these dead ends where, okay, we tried that open, that didn't go anywhere. So there's no reason to, it may not necessarily be the case, but there's no reason to think it's impossible that as you just said, there's this kind of growth sort of thing that's there and then something else grows. But the other thing I was going to say that that sort of fused for me with this tradition is something gnostic tradition that you mentioned where the whole idea of this false God, demiurge.
There's the true God, the creator. Well, he wants to create a world for some reason or other, but he doesn't do his job himself. He hires out, he doesn't get his hands dirty, he hires out. So he creates this demigod or demiurge to do the work, the architect, and he gets carried away with his work and he starts to identify with, and he's the real one. So that's the left brain. And you mentioned Kabbalah, you have the pillar of mercy and the pillar of severity. And then there's in the middle, and I mean they're very broad, general sorts of things, but you can see in these kinds of traditions, and I tend to think, well, or can we see these as sort of intuitions of this sort of thing?
At the same time, I think it could turn out to be whether it's in the brain or not, there are these differences in modes of knowing the world and sort of tightly focused or logical or dealing with things. And then we all know, I said, we all know the difference between having to deal with things all the time and then, unfortunately, we have to, certain substances help us to sort of get out of that. And suddenly you have this strange phenomenon of something that before was nothing. It just was something, whatever it was in front of you, then it looks interesting. It's interesting because you've somehow managed to get out of that dealing with the world mode and you're letting the being of whatever it is around you, more of it somehow in some sort of way.
I mean, we don't know how to turn it on or off, although I guess some modes of meditation aim at doing that. We sort of have devised ways of doing it in some way. But no, but it struck me that, oh God, this looks like a good parallel. And you can see throughout the history of these different people that I talk about as secret teachers, there is this kind of dialectic, and many of them tried to have a balance of the two. So you have the scientists and you have the mystics, and then there's these ones who somehow try to bring both sides together, (Pythagoras and others like that) which is the ideal.
Adam Jacobs: So I think a lot of people think of him as just the guy who discovered things about angles and triangles, but as you outline, he had quite a lot to say in terms of mysticism, and he had a whole discipline for his life and his followers. When you call somebody a secret teacher, how do you get into that club and why is he in it? Why is Plato in it and others that you outlined in the book?
Gary Lachman: Well, there's a couple of different ways you can look at that sort of phrase. Excuse me, secret teacher. It's a teacher that we don't know about or is unknown or isn't known as well. So their reputation doesn't allow for their full influence to be known. So say someone like Madame Blavatsky, if anyone knows about her, this crazy Russian woman who claimed to have traveled through Tibet and been taught by Hindu masters there and sent into the west to battle against materialism, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And she's supposed to be shown to be a fraud and all this kind of stuff. And when I wrote my book about her, I was surprised I had accepted a lovable rogue at best. But then I learned actually, so many of the things have you trace them to their sources and they're actually not, they're inaccurate or they're misinterpreted
Adam Jacobs: The rogue. This is inaccurate?
Gary Lachman: No, not that, but I mean these sorts of things, I mean, I don't want to go into details about her in particular, but one of the things that hardly ever gets mentioned is that she introduced Gandhi to the Bhagavad Gita. You hear stuff about her supposedly being responsible for the Nazis because of stuff she said about root races and all this sort of thing. But when in her last days when she was living in London, not too far from where I live, and Gandhi was in London studying law and wearing a bowler hat. And when I say this in talks, he's saying, doing his best to be Ben Kingsley, these two theosophists who were gaga over anything Indian or Hindu, anything like that. They just bumped into him and they just said, oh, would be very interested. And at some point they said, wouldn't it be wonderful? All three of us could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original language. And he had to admit that he had never read it in any language because the Christian missionaries said, told it was rubbish.
And they said, well, you must meet Madam Blavatsky. And they took him to Avenue Road, said, not far from where I live, where she was living. And that's when he met. And after that, he always had a good word, even in his last days when he was assassinated, in the journal they put out, he spoke about theosophy as Hinduism in theory and Hinduism as theosophy in practice or something along those lines. So I mean this's the sort of thing. So I mean she was influential in that kind of way. And there are other ways where these different figures or the ideas from this tradition have informed what we know as culture or you are a teacher of secrets. That's the esoteric sort of way of looking at it, a knowledge that you have that you can pass on to others.
And that's the whole sort of hermetic chain, this golden chain of the adepts where Hermes Trismegistus teaches Asclepius, and Asclepius teaches someone else and someone else teaches Pythagoras and he teaches Empedocles and goes out to Plato, and so on and so on, that kind of mystical chain of the great adepts. And so that's one idea. It's a different way of looking at it. What I wanted to do is exactly what you said. I wanted to write a kind of epic narrative, a narrative history, which again, that's a kind of form of writing that's not as prevalent, certainly not in the academic world. But I wanted to write a page-turning narrative because an exciting story.
Adam Jacobs: It really is. And I'm particularly interested in the advantages of, let's call it again, right brain kind of thinking. Although in my subjective thinking, I don't think it's necessarily about the brain per se, but rather what's behind the brain, which is a different sort of discussion, but be that as it may, you talk about the concept of perspective in art. Are you familiar with the work of Bernardo Kastrup at all? Does that name sound familiar?
Gary Lachman: I know who he is, yes. I can't say I'm familiar with his work.
Adam Jacobs: It's excellent. I also think it very important, and he also talks about perspective in one of his books, and he wanted to make the case that the reason that things were two dimensional and art at a certain time and then became three dimensional was not some discovery of painting techniques, but rather because humans simply perceived the world differently. And as science progressed and people wanted accuracy in their representation of the world, three dimensionality was sort of born. And how do you understand how culture, music, and art of all kinds has been affected by what you call the aggressiveness of the left brain?
Gary Lachman: Well, I just want to say we were just talking about their perspective because someone else whose ideas I draw on to push the narrative along with McGilchrist because they do line up in many ways as this German-Swiss philosopher, Jean Gebser who died in 1973. But he wrote this remarkable book called The Ever-present Origin. He doesn't talk about the brains so much. He talks about what he calls structures of consciousness, different forms of consciousness that have emerged over time. And five of them, and we ourselves are in the last stages of what he calls the mental rational structure of consciousness. And we're experiencing its breakdown.
It's starting to take itself apart in possible preparation for what he calls the integral stage, which will somehow recapitulate all these previous stages. It's the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental rational, and so on, I mean, that's his kind of, but how he describes this breakdown or the kind of hypertrophying of, (because the mental rational structure lines up very well with how McGilchrist describes the excesses of the left brain). So they seemed in some way talking about something similar. But he talks about perspective starting with Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux in the 14th century when the Italian poet Petrarch, decides to climb a mountain and apparently he's one of the first or few or whatever, I don't know, maybe somebody was before him. He's the one we know about the most, who ever decided to climb a mountain just to see the view.
People have gone over mountains, they had to, and on the way he meets different people and they say, oh no, why are you going there? You’ll only die? Or There's only demons there, so there be monsters, different versions of that. And he's driven to go. And it's a wonder he writes a letter to his confessor about it all because he's a very good Christian and a good Catholic, and the whole idea of being awed by the marvels of the world seems a bit satanic or whatever. He shouldn't really do that. But at the same time, he climbs and he sees these vistas and Gebser and also this other interesting fellow who is, I would say a secret teacher nobody knows about. I mean, Gebser is a secret teacher. Not too many people know about him. This fellow named Owen Barfield who was good friends with CS Lewis, and he was part of this group called the Inklings.
He used to meet in Oxford and it was Lewis and Tolkien and Charles Williams was another one, but, but he wrote about the history of language as giving evidence for kind of archeology of consciousness as sort of evolution of consciousness. And he too said that prior to this time, it was sort of like the Middle Ages. Everything was like a tapestry. He didn't have that sense of depth that, and so you have things were big that were important, religiously important, so it wasn't perspective, and then suddenly it was like, ah, this is much more rooted in the world and things of that sort. So there was a shift there, and this is sort of the beginning of the space age in the sense that at least in the West, the human consciousness starts to get much more aware of just the sheer distance of things. And he's having this incredible mystical experience, but he's also feeling a bit like, oh, maybe I shouldn't be enjoying this kind of thing at the same time.
Adam Jacobs: So interesting. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is you talk about people who calculate, those idiot savants who do these calculations instantaneously of pi to whatever degree and prime numbers. And from what I understand as you were explaining it, it's not possible to just calculate that there are supercomputers that take some time to be able to do that. And you describe it as sort of a seeing or just a knowing that this is the number which I found fascinating.
And it opens again, questions about the nature of genius and the nature of knowledge. And I think the reason you start to explain also ancient cultures and certain technologies that they had that surprise us nowadays is to suggest that there was something about, let's call it again, the right brain consciousness, that people were able to access for different kinds of information that we can't understand how they could have had because we have no ability to do what they did. Is that an accurate description of that whole concept?
Gary Lachman: Well, yeah, I think we can look at it that way. I mean, some people have directly sort of linked what we would call a more right-brain sort of perception of things with ancient civilizations like Egypt. There is a French alchemist and sort of renegade Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz you mentioned spent many, many years in Luxor. And he talked about this kind of symbolism, which was this kind of way of perceiving things where you saw the actual physicalness, but somehow you participated with it in a deeper kind of sense. I mean, we tend to see everything outside of us as outside. It's like we're in a box with lots of other things and it's like we bump into all the other stuff.
But in this southern mode, you kind of blend in with the things in different ways and you participate with them. And this wonderful book he wrote one of the last things that did called Nature Word, and it's all these aphorisms or short sort of passages about the sort of participatory kind of consciousness. And I mean people like Barfield and also a straight Germanist academic fellow, Eric Miller who wrote much about Thomas Mann and Nietzsche and Rilke and all this. But they both start talking about this whole notion that the further you go back in language, language itself is more poetic.
Let's say I'm a more metaphoric, you never reach this kind of grunt, like bare fact kind of nuts and bolts kind of language. Which one from say the Darwinian kind of perspective, you would think you have to start out with simple kind of things and it gets more complex, but the language itself further goes back. It has this kind of luster of imagery and poetry and as you were saying, people saw the world in a different way and this is what they're saying. Yes, back then it wasn't this kind of sharp differentiation between in and out and the Cartesian, this little puddle of consciousness in here. And then there's this hard world out there. Somehow I think we do experience those sorts of participatory moments, meditation and religious experiences and aesthetic experiences or listening to music, but we just think of them as being relaxed or something. It's kind of, oh, well, you know what I mean? The kind of a little icing on the cake as it were
Adam Jacobs: Right? Which I don't think, I think it's something much deeper than that personally. It's not just that it's putting you in a good mood and therefore you're experiencing pleasure. I mean, I've asked this to many people, but you're a very appropriate person to ask this to. As a Hall of Fame, inductee musician, it seems to me that there is no evolutionary benefit to listening to music. All it is is some tones. There's no actual meaning to them. And yet we all know, or most people know, that you can have something akin to a transcendental experience participating in a musical experience, especially at a club or a stadium where a lot of people are doing it at the same time.
To me, that's a very right brain mystical encounter, whether or not we label it that way. And furthermore, my experience in observing myself and others going through that kind of experience is that there's a goodness attached to it. There's a fundamental goodness attached to it where I know maybe at CBGBs people might mosh or beat each other up or something, but in most concerts, people have a sense of unity, they have a sense of harmony, they have a sense of loving each other, being in this experience together. And I think that that kind of experience is so critical for our culture in so many different ways. Politics to me, seems left-brained and is divisive, and art seems right-brained, and therefore it seems unitive.
And so I think part of the sickness that I would say our culture is experiencing and getting worse and worse possibly is part of this dichotomy that people have not had or not having enough nourishment from the right side, and they're acting out in upset and anger at being spiritually malnourished, I would call it. How would you react to that?
Gary Lachman: I think that's a very accurate assessment of things. I said there always are ways to access this, but it's not been kind of, I should you say it, integrated into the culture except in those sorts of ways. So you can go get out of it at a dance rave-up and all that sort of thing, and that's where it happens. But no, no, you're right. But one of the things I think, and I've written about this in, I mean I think I touched on it towards the end of the book, but I've written about it in a couple other books of mine. One called Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, and then in another speak of the Devil called Dark Star Rising, which is about Trump.
But the whole idea is that it strikes me in some ways because we haven't integrated in some ways this other mode, and it doesn't go away. It's just like Freud and the repressed return of the repressed or whatever it is, or Jung in the shadow. It's not there. It is not that it's not there. We don't, we might not want to see it, but it's there. It's still with us, and it will emerge in ways less salubrious sometimes. And I think in recent times, various different ways, the kind of irrationalism, not necessarily as we say channeled through traditions, I wouldn't say the traditions are irrational, they're in addition to, but you know what I'm saying? But it comes out in this raw sort of other way.
So all the kind of very strange Q anon and variety of different and conspiracy kinds of things and all that. I mean, I tend to think of that. That's where the far out meets the far right in that weird kind of penumbra of conspiracy theories and a variety of other things. And you do find many new-agey or spiritual, whatever you want to say, people breaking bread with sensibilities that we would think, oh, you wouldn't necessarily normally find yourself together, but in some way. So I mean, that's one of the things that I think has been happening in the past several years.
Adam Jacobs: Me too. And it's fascinating to observe and will just say one more thing. Unfortunately, I'm almost out of time already, and I just started warming up in terms of what I wanted to ask you. But there's a Ted Talk, I think it's the most popular Ted Talk ever, which is called My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who's a woman who had an unusual kind of stroke that shut off her left brain only. And she's a brain researcher to boot, which is fascinating. So she's one of the few people in the world who experienced life through only the channel of her right brain. And the way she describes it is almost like a psychedelic, blissful, joy-filled experience that she almost didn't want to end, except that she was sort of aware that she might die if she didn't get help. But she said she was thoroughly enjoying it as it was happening. And so to me, that just underscores everything we've been discussing,
Which is there is some latent power that human beings have. We've been detached from it over time, maybe by accident, maybe by design, but it is still available in various forms. And I think that to the degree that we can develop this as people, as a culture, I think we would reap so many great benefits. And I hope that your work and books like this one, and I'm motivated to read your others, can really contribute to people understanding that there's a long and rich history of these ideas. It's not just like the National Enquirer and some woo-woo stuff that it's, it's worth looking at.
Gary Lachman: I'm sorry, say, the thing I always, I think is you sort of somehow have to get past the woo-woo factor. You used to not to be able to talk about sex, it was like nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Now you can talk about sex and it's utterly boring, but you can say whatever you want about it. So the woo-woo is still here with this. That to me, in one sense, although it's a hurdle, it also suggests that it suggests its potential because it's still seen as dangerous in some way, even with all the Harry Potters. Again, that's all out there too. But I don't know. It has visible, it's visible in the popular culture. But I said in terms of being actually integrated in what we take to be knowledge of ourselves, it's still on the fringe. Thank you very much. I very much appreciate talking about the book again, and I hope we have another conversation sometime.
Adam Jacobs: Me too. Can I ask you one real fast question? What's Debbie Harry like?
Gary Lachman: I knew her a long time ago. She was a good cook and she ironed my skinny ties for me, so she was very nice.
Adam Jacobs: Okay, well thank you for your contribution there too. Blondie's been with me my whole life as well, and X-offender. Great song. Anyway, it was a real pleasure to speak to you and I appreciate your time. Please go and check out this book and all of Dr. Lachman's work and we will be back next time with more ideas, more things to consider. Please subscribe to our YouTube channel and go to Beyond Belief Blog and register and check out all the things that we have coming up. Thank you so much for being here.
Gary Lachman: My pleasure. Thank you.
Adam Jacobs: Alright, have a great day.
Gary Lachman: Take care. Bye-Bye.