Friday, 26 January 2018

My Weird Sixties Heritage

I'm currently reading Gary Lachman's fascinating Turn off Your Mind, which concerns the dark side of Sixties counterculture, and it's revealed to me how much a debt my personal culture owes to that wild and psychedelic time.

This might not sound an entirely positive discovery, given that the book (1) starts with the slaying of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson's 'Family' and (2) reveals just how much sixties mysticism was influenced by far-right occult groups. Still, the remainder has been very illuminating.

I was born in 1973, after the sixties ship had sunk but in a decade when pieces of its colourful culture were still whirling around on top on the ocean. That's actually how I came upon a lot of the material, as bits and pieces inherited from dusty bookshelves and run-down record shops (also dusty).

These bits of Sixties detritus probably seem a little random. I played my father's Dylan LPs obsessively as a teen, and Donovon, Hendrix, Cat Stevens, The Doors etc. were a staple of my University years, thanks to a flatmate who was an obsessive sixties fan.

Second were the various literary influences. Lachman devotes a couple of chapters to this, looking at the Lord of the Rings phenomenon and the two thirties pulp writers, Lovecraft and Howard, who both gained posthumous fame in that period. Lovecraft especially I'd rate as a significant influence on my writing, and also the Lord of the Rings in a tangential sort of way. The beat writers were also an influence: in particular Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which was a University staple (this was in the '90s when students still actually read books occasionally....)

Aldous Huxley in his late spiritual-psychedelic phase also must be mentioned. My politics are actually very close to Huxley's: seeking a middle way between mass techno-culture and primitivism, with an interest in individual freedom, the environment and also spiritual development. I'm currently re-reading his Utopian Island, which comes close to a society I'd actually like to live in.

I'd be lying if I denied that the 'occult' side of things hadn't also been a major influence. The Von Daniken Ancient Astronaut thesis had a big impact on me when I was eleven (Lachman reveals that his ideas were actually plagiarised from earlier works, like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier's Morning of the Magicians).

For about two years, I firmly believed that God had indeed been an astronaut, and that the pyramids were built by Aliens. This fairly delusional state was exploded after my Grandfather gave me a copy of Francis Hitchings' World Atlas of Mysteries in 1987, which had a very skeptical piece exposing the lies, exaggerations and distortions of Von Daniken's work. It was an early, salutary lesson in critical thinking....

Nonetheless, my interest in occult matters continued, through writers like Colin Wilson, who has also clearly been a major influence on Lachman (Wilson had a literary comeback with his giant tome The Occult, published 1971 and inspired by the 1960s esoteric revival).

Lachman in some ways is a successor to Wilson: they share a talent for synthesising diverse and far-out materials. Lachman's ongoing thesis, by the way, is that occultism and secret societies like Theosophy have been far more influential on Western culture than is generally admitted. This thesis seems broadly correct to me, which is extraordinary when you consider that a large portion of occult ideas are undeniably bulls**t.

So why do I continue to find 'occult' and alternative ideas about the world engaging? I think it's simply that they satisfy a need that's not generally supplied anywhere else. Interestingly, this issue came up recently on Russell Brand's  podcast in an interview with Pankaj Mishra, author of a book called the Age of Anger. Mishra suggests that one reason for widespread anger in societies across the globe comes from a loss of faith in what he terms the 'false religion' of progress.


This loss of faith, in the sixties and also today, has triggered a search for alternative ways of life. On the podcast, Mishra suggested that the impetus came from disillusionment with a 'soulless mechanical society' that was in the 1960s engaged in a violent war in the Far East. He also suggested that this impulse arose because of a feeling of being trapped in such a culture.

Whilst acknowledging the dark side of this search, he defended those who were looking to older civilisations and philosophies as inspiration for better ways of life.

This sense of confinement and a search for another way of life makes a great deal of sense to me, and I think it's another reason why I continue to engage with this material, despite often being skeptical of it. It also makes sense of why I find visiting places like Samye Ling so inspiring and important. I have learnt much from my exposure to Tibetan culture and Buddhist philosophies; at the very least, they provide alternative perspectives on things like consciousness, the individual, interconnectedness and human 'nature.'

 So however imperfect these outlets are, they offer alternatives to ways of life that seem to me increasingly sterile, restrictive and downright oppressive for many people, and I think that our culture would have been a lot poorer if the sixties occult revival had never happened.

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