Lachman: Turn off your mind

We are living in strange times, where everything seems to be getting stranger every day. All that is solid melts into air, and everything we take for granted turns out to have been a temporary coincidence imprinted upon us by the accident of being impressionable at a certain place at a certain time. Kids these days don’t know the first thing about the most obvious of topics, while the old ones (the supposed fount of established wisdom) are profoundly ignorant about what’s what these days. Strangeness is afoot, and thus there is a need for some stable, familiar, non-controversial comfort food for the soul.

What, then, could be more comfortable than a potted history of the Age of Aquarius, the psychedelic 60s, the explosion of occult mysticism into the mainstream culture? Surely, by now, this is the most familiar footing to be found, if such a thing is to be found anywhere.

And, indeed, it is strangely comforting to read Lachman’s who’s who of the occult 60s. There was magic in the air, most of which eventually boiled down to the trifecta of sex, drugs and a perpetual need to keep enough of a media buzz rolling to ensure sufficient funds were available to keep the magic lantern alight. It should come as no surprise that rock and roll was one of the primary means of ensuring positive vibes and cash flows, but it was far from the only means of keeping it up. Just as the Beatles incorporated superficial elements of Jung and eastern mysticism into their musical works, psychedelic evangelists on the lecture circuit pushed the virtues of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, with the briefest of hand gestures towards ancient spiritual practices. The goal being not so much to shepherd the lost souls of the post-war generation towards enlightenment as it was to secure another gig or another book contract. Or, as the case might be, scoring another hit. All of this was profoundly new and profoundly strange at the time; the alchemy of time passing has turned it into a well-worn familiar cultural touchstone. The UFO arrived, and we were on it.

The comfort of familiarity is at odds with the stated premise of the book, to expose the dark side of the flowery 60s. Beneath the peace, love and understanding lurks a vast subterranean architecture of (distinctly non-spiritual) drug abuse, non-consensual sex and brainwashy cults with varying degrees of manslaughter attributed to their names (or to the names of their invented deities, who sometimes coincided with the personage of the cult founder). Far from being harmless wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo, the new age inherited a legacy of depravity to rival anything the old age could throw at us. Indeed, the frequent and explicit reverent depictions of past nazi occult practices (actual or imagined) hints that the new age might very well be a not too subtle continuation of the old age, albeit in slightly more flowery prose. And yet, the familiarity is all-encompassing. The mood is one of high weirdness, but it is weirdness that has been around for so long that imagining a world without it would be a more herculean effort of reconstructive archaeology than simply accepting the presence of a third eye or astral body. The Age of Aquarius did not come to pass, but its failure to materialize brought it about as firmly as any immanentization of the eschaton ever would.

What did come to pass between the publication of the book in 2001 and now was twenty years of accelerated weirdness. Some of this acceleration can be attributed to the passage of time and the opportunity to get used to the ideas, – time being the great alchemical cauldron – but the internet is to be blamed and/or praised in equal measure. Getting the word out in the 60s was an ordeal, meaning that the words that did get out had overcome the challenge of effort; while not impossible to do, this ensured there would be less verbiage overall. There was a Crowley, a Lovecraft, one set of Beatles, and any set of derivatives or combinations would have to effort to get heard beyond their immediate physical surroundings. High weirdness it might be, but it was also high weirdness with a manageably low rate of iteration; given enough library time, a person could eventually catch up. To be contrasted to the faster pace of today, where being offline for a week means certain portions of occult developments are simply unavailable to you, the iterations having morphed so fast that retracing the steps becomes both impossible and meaningless. By the time the latest doge purveyor has turned out to be a milkshake duck, four new distracted boyfriends have taken their place. There is simply too much strangeness afoot to catch, let alone keep, up.

Part of the familiarity emanating from the book, I suspect, comes from the eternal recurrence of the same motivations then as now. A 60s mass producer of somewhat coherent neo-spiritualist gobbledygook (goo goo g’joob) aiming to pay the bills is eerily similar to the present day mass producer of “content” (goo goo g’joob) aiming to pay the bills. The words, frames of reference and amounts of drugs consumed might be different (might), but the overall aim remains the same. Gotta pay the bills, man, and the capitalist system allows you to do so whilst raging against the very selfsame man.

What, then, might the familiar dark side of the present be? Readers of Turn off your mind will not be enlightened in this regard, but they will end up thoroughly introduced to the weirder aspects of contemporary counterculture. Which, all things considered, is not a bad thing to be; time being cyclical, these things are bound to return again and again in different forms, gently nodding in recognition to those in the know.

Lachman: Turn off your mind