Gary Lachman, former Blondie band member and all around expert on shadows and magic has a new book out,
The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus . Today he shares his thoughts on the philosopher.
JD: Could you familiarize readers with Hermes Trismegistus?
GL: Hermes Trismegistus is the name of a mythical sage/philosopher/magician believed to have lived before the flood, who was responsible for civilization. He invented writing, mastered all knowledge and all science, as well as the occult arts. In some accounts he built the pyramids. He is associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, and was thought to be the author of a collection of philosophical/spiritual texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum. These writings, which were probably produced by more than one author, appeared sometime in the first centuries following Christ, in Alexandria. But for many years they were thought to have been written at the "dawn of history" and to be an account of a primal divine revelation, when the gods revealed their secrets to man. This led to them being seen as the source of all later knowledge. Following first the Christians, then the Muslims, both of whom persecuted the pagan (Greek) philosophers, the Hermetic books were lost. They were rediscovered in the early 1400s, when Cosimo De Medici's book scout brought them from Macedonia to Florence. Here they were translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino and had an enormous influence on the Renaissance; Botticelli's Primavera, for example, is based on Hermetic ideas. At one point, the Hermetic teachings almost became official church doctrine, as many Renaissance Christian thinkers saw Hermes as a precursor to Christ. By the early 1600s, however, a humanist scholar named Casaubon realised that the Hermetic books could not have been written before Plato, as they were thought to have been, and were a product of the early Christian era. With this, and with the rise of materialist science, both Hermes and his teachings lost their prestige. Today, aside from students of history and the occult, he is practically unknown, an ironic fate for a figure who for many years was considered as important as Moses or Christ.
JD: What is it about the writings and philosophy of Hermes that you think have allowed his work to survive throughout the years?
GL: Well, they've survived for the last four centuries as a kind of counter-tradition to what we know as modern science. They are one of the sources of what we know as the occult and form a whole mystical philosophy at odds with current reductionist ideas about humanity and the world. The essence of the Hermetic vision is the notion "as above, so below," an aphorism encapsulating the idea that human beings are a microcosm of the entire universe. Unlike in modern visions of the world, in which we are nothing special, just one thing among countless others, in the Hermetic view, humanity occupies a particular place in the cosmos. In fact, we are the cosmos, we contain it inwardly, in our consciousness. Because of this we have certain responsibilities and obligations - we are, in fact, co-creators of the universe. The aim of Hermetic practice was to achieve a perception of the entire cosmos, an immense broadening of our inner world. With ideas about the supposed big bang, and our evolution from the amoeba to ourselves purely through chance and blind mechanical forces, we are about as far from the Hermetic view as we can get. Personally I prefer the Hermetic view.
JD: How do you shut out the superficial blather and distracting devices of the 21st Century when working on such esoteric material?
GL: Basically I hunker down at the British Library with a desk load of books and just read until my eyes hurt. Then I do the same thing the next day. This goes on for several months until I've absorbed as much information as I can. Then I try to put it all into a neat, readable form, synthesizing different ideas and perspectives and discovering new approaches and possibilities along the way. I think it is especially important today to try to get a grasp of the past, of the forces and currents in history that led to us, here, now. Without this we are simply blind and dumb. One of the exciting things that happens as I do this is an intense feeling of the reality of the past. The ancient Alexandrian philosophers are no longer merely people who died centuries ago. They are real, alive, and I have a very palpable sense of a continuity with them. This leads to a whole new perspective on time, which is precisely what a great deal of the Hermetic work is about. The "here, now" we exist in is only one part of a much wider NOW that is in some way outside our "normal" sense of space and time. What is important about this is that it can be achieved not through drugs or meditation, but through a discipline of thought and imagination - again, two key items in the Hermetic work.
JD: What are your favorite new(ish) books?
GL: The bad thing about writing the kinds of books I do is that I spend so much time reading for them that I rarely get to read anything else. And while writing, I can't read anything too interesting, otherwise it will turn my mind in that direction, and away from the book. So I tend to read either something I've read before, or something light and entertaining. Recently, however, I was in Germany to give a talk at a museum in Frankfurt, and while there I read Frank Tallis' latest fin-de-siecle Vienna detective novel, featuring a student of Freud, Death and the Maiden. Great fun and very evocative of the period.
JD: What does Hermes have in common with Jung, your last subject?
GL: Hermes T. was thought to have invented alchemy, and Jung devoted much of his later work to trying to understand alchemical ideas within the context of his ideas about psychology. Jung was pretty much responsible for a kind of Hermetic revival in the modern age, and we can see much of his work as an attempt to communicate Hermetic ideas in psychological language.
JD: What's up next for you?
GL: I'm currently working on a book about Madame Blavatsky, one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century. She started the Theosophical Society, which had an tremendous influence on modern culture. Some of the people either influenced by her or her ideas include Thomas Edison, Gandhi, W.B. Yeats, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and many more. She lived in New York in the mid 1870s - roosting there for a time after travelling around the world (including Tibet) - and she was a kind of American immigrant success story. She came over in steerage from Europe, arrived penniless, and lived for a time in a woman's co-operative on the Lower East Side. Then in 1876-78 she held a salon at her exotic apartment, known as the Lamasery, in Hell's Kitchen, where she gave displays of her psychic powers and talked about everything under the sun and much more. She also smoked like a chimney and dressed, as one account has it, "like a badly wrapped Christmas present." Quite a character, and her two major books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are esoteric classics.
JD: For more on Gary, please check out his website:
For more on the craft of writing please check out my book,