Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the link between consciousness, culture, and alternative thought. His books include Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius; A Secret History of Consciousness; In Search of P.D. Ouspensky; A Dark Muse; Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Thought; and The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters, and now Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings. As Gary Valentine, he was a founding member of the rock group Blondie, played guitar with Iggy Pop, and fronted his own groups the Know and Fire Escape. New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation is an account of his years on the New York and Los Angeles underground music scenes in the 1970s and 80s, and in 2006 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is a regular contributor to Fortean Times, Independent on Sunday, Strange Attractor, What is Enlightenment and other journals in the US and UK. A frequent lecturer on the history of the counterculture, Lachman has appeared in several UK television documentaries and has broadcast for the BBC. He lives in London. His most recent book is Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (Quest, 2008).
We at The Contrarian are huge fans of Gary, as are many of our readers. Which is why we’re so delighted that he took time from his ridiculously busy schedule to answer a few questions about his new book and its perennially enigmatic subject.
The Contrarian: There’s not a shortage of books about Carl Jung, with each subsequent entry purporting to be the definitive biography. What about your book stands out in this crowded field?
Gary Lachman: Rather than avoid talking about Jung’s “mystical” or “occult” inclinations, as some books on him do, or use them as a stick to beat him with, or applaud them uncritically, or explain them away, I take them seriously, and try to place Jung in the context of other “mystical” teachers, like Rudolf Steiner and Gurdjieff. I also ask why Jung seemed to have had a profound ambivalence about them, why publicly he insisted repeatedly that he was a scientist and not a mystic, yet among his close circle presented a different attitude.
TC: Individuation is Jung’s term for an alchemical-style process in which the components of one’s “spirit” and psyche are melded in a more holistic comprehension of self. How much of a believer are you in this transformation?
GL: If you’re asking if I believe in self-transformation, the answer is yes. I think you can understand individuation as broadly alchemical, in the sense that it involves bringing together opposites and creating something new out of the encounter. I don’t think you need to use alchemical language or concepts in order to do this, though. Individuation is about “becoming who you are” — it’s the same as Abraham Maslow‘s notion of self-actualization. It means becoming “you” and not merely a copy of the people around you.
TC: Jung is also known for his theory of the collective unconsciousness, or “world psyche,” in which the contents of our individual minds correlate at a deeper level through communal archetypes. Is there a dissonance between the idea of a shared spirit-map and the subjective experience of individuation, in which transformation is different for different people? Did you find any evidence in your studies of Jung attempting to reconcile these potentially contrasting ideas?
GL: I don’t see them as conflicting. It is precisely the collective unconscious that one individuates from, as it were. You individuate by becoming aware of the influence of the collective unconscious, the deeper forces at work in the psyche. By becoming aware of them and incorporating them consciously, one becomes an individual.You are not then pushed around by them without a clue, as most of us are most of the time.
TC: Jung seems to have spent a great deal of energy trying to dodge the mystic tag he was so often flagged with. How do you think he’d have dealt with the Aquarian-age co-opting of his concepts? If he were around today, would he be Grand Poo-Bah of Burning Man or an embittered shut-in?
GL: I think Jung would have been pleased that his ideas have become so fundamental to modern spirituality, but he would have shaken his head at raves and such. Individuation is hard work and it means confronting yourself, society, and the cosmos on your own. He enjoyed a good party but like anything of value, individuating is something one does on one’s own. I’m sure Burning Man and so on are great fun, but I don’t know how useful mass events are in “becoming who you are.” Jung, remember, spent a great deal of time in solitude in his famous tower at Bollingen.
TC: To me, Jung is the preeminent cartographer of the human mind. In fact, I’m always puzzled that he has so many critics who are quick to dismiss his work while swooning for far nuttier stuff. Why do you think he’s had such difficulty being accepted by either the scientific or spiritual mainstream?
GL: I don’t know that he hasn’t been accepted by the “spiritual mainstream,” whoever that means. He opposed the reductionist, materialist “scientistic” view, so it’s no surprise many scientists consider him a flake. I think Jung is a rare character, someone who applied scientific rigour to spiritual concerns. Sadly many “spiritual” people are disinclined to think, so they may adopt Jungian ideas like synchronicity without really thinking about them, or about anything else for that matter.
TC: Leading neuroscientists have embraced the idea of brain plasticity as a means of dealing with the “reformatting” of troublesome mental “programs,” i.e., neuroses. Plasticity is not a new concept; Buddhists have for centuries advocated for practices that allow thought to be neutrally observed and new mental habits established. In light of meditation, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy, are Jung’s self-initiated breakdowns perhaps unnecessarily messy?
GL: Jung didn’t offer his “method” as one appropriate for everyone, and he often said that most neuroses were probably better treated by other means, even Freudian ones. But if you want to discover your unconscious and have some idea what’s going on in it and how you can develop a vital, creative, and surprising relation to it, he believed you needed to meet it face to face, as it were. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted active imagination to be seen as a “technique.” Becoming who you are isn’t something you can do when necessary. You either become who you are or you don’t.
TC: Speaking of self-initiation, Jung was also big on highly personal information, whether it be drawings, sculptures, mandalas or secret linguistics. Does sharing the semantic code with others somehow lessen its alchemical potency?
GL: I think some symbols discovered in dreams etc can have a collective meaning, but many are metaphors about your own life and are surprisingly specific, as if the intelligence responsible for them is speaking directly to ‘you’. At least in my own case I have always been stunned by the aptness of imagery in dreams and how they use jokes, plays on words, visual gags, to make a point. I am repeatedly reminded that what I call “my unconscious” is an independent, living intelligence that more times than not knows more than I do. Jung also believed it was important to have a ‘secret’, something of deep significance that you kept to yourself. This creates a kind of inner pressure that fuels individuation. It’s something he shares with most esoteric teaching. We all know the devaluing effect of telling a particularly important dream to someone else, how it often loses its “charge.” Pearls before swine, and all that.
TC: What do you think of the Red Book? I have it, but feel like I need to take a vacation in order to properly experience its contents.
GL: I think it is a remarkable record of one remarkable person’s encounter with a formidably remarkable living intelligence that just happened to have resided in his head.
TC: When it comes to transformations, you’re certainly no slouch. Going from punk rock star to distinguished esoteric historian is hardly a typical career arc. Could you offer a word of advice or encouragement to others on a less-than conventional path?
GL: Well, in the first case I never was a “star.” I made a not inconsiderable contribution to pop music, but was never a celebrity. But my basic advice is to listen to your “self” and do your best to become who you are. Don’t be afraid of taking risks or of disappointing other people, especially your friends. My interest in music and performing is part of the same impulse that later led me to write. It’s a need for self-expression combined with an appetite for ideas. I was always interested in the kind of thing I write about now, but I needed to mature in order to do it. I have nothing against pop music, but there’s only so much you can say in a song. Now I have 80,000 – 100,000 words. You may not be able to dance to it, but it is very satisfying to collect all your thoughts on, say, Jung and organize them into a book that, with any luck, others will get something out of.