Ur Texts, Artforum, 2002

In his youth, Julius Evola (1898-1974), an Italian aristocrat, befriended Tristan Tzara and helped found the Italian wing of Dada as a poet and painter. After his Dadaist period, Baron Evola turned to the study of alchemy and the occult, and under the tutelage of the writer Rene Guenon he became one of the twentieth century’s leading occult practitioners and a brilliant esoteric scholar. Beginning in 1927, he led an esoteric group in Italy called UR, which published in its own magazine practical essays on the occult as well as translations of Mithraic rituals and Tantric meditations. One volume of these essays has been translated into English under the embarrassing yet accurate title Introduction to Magic. But until recently, Evola has been ignored in the US because of his far-right-wing perspective-both Mussolini and the SS courted him in the ’30s, though he chose to remain independent of Fascism. Evola wrote a number of books, many of which have now been translated by Inner Traditions Press. These include The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols & Teachings of the Royal Art($16.95), an extremely cogent elucidation of the alchemical “Great Work”; Revolt Against the Modem World ($29.95), an analysis of the development of modern society from an occultist’s “traditional” perspective; and The Doctrine of Awakening($16.95), on Buddhism.

Most people will find it difficult if not impossible to appreciate Evola’s viewpoint. His perspective will only make sense for those who have discovered for themselves that the scientific rationalism of our materialist age is not the whole story. For Evola and his UR confreres, materialism is actually an imprisonment within a “magic circle” that has condemned contemporary humanity to a shadow life, “an atrophy and exclusion of the possibilities of every higher vision and sensibility.” As one of the pseudonymous essayists in Introduction to Magic puts it, “Generally speaking, there is no subversive movement in history and in human thought that does not have its ‘occult’ origins. What needs to be understood is that one of the most recent ‘confections’ devised by the dark forces is the ‘positivist’ theory, which adamantly denies the existence of such backgrounds and claims that everything in human affairs can be explained through tangible historical causes.”

Against the modern paradigm of rational evolution Evola poses the ancient belief that history is cyclical and that humanity has fallen from a higher state. He argues that we are now living at the rock bottom of the Kali Yuga, the Hindu Dark Ages, when all traditions have been trashed, when humanity has forgotten its proper place in the natural and supernatural orders, when culture has been reduced to decoration and distraction, when the physical sciences have created a false substitute for the esoteric sciences of a classical age that predates recorded history. Evola’s evaluation of our present condition is as devastating as Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, though written from a completely different perspective. In Evola’s view, “There is no future, in the positive sense of the word, for modern civilization as a whole.”

The Hermetic Tradition, probably Evola’s masterpiece, explains that alchemy is the Western form of Tantric Buddhism or yoga-a precision technology for transforming the psyche by reaching higher states of consciousness. The alchemists’ seemingly obscure terminology of planets, metals, and “dosages” refers to a systematic method for achieving transcendence and maintaining one’s self in these powerful states. According to Evola, the alchemists found a means of remaining conscious throughout sleep. Rather than a pause for obliteration, night becomes the staging ground for a “cosmic awakening.” Between sleep and dream, the alchemist finds a doorway leading into spiritual dimensions where one encounters spiritual beings who create and maintain the physical world. After achieving such a “separation,” the alchemist would transform himself into an immortal spiritual being able to enter other dimensions at will. Physical death would no longer be something mysterious to be feared but merely a transition to “other conditions of existence, having no resemblance to the Earth.”

This may sound outlandish-but I now suspect it is correct. To understand why requires a detour through recent writing on the illegal psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a compound with a remarkably similar molecular structure to serotonin, the neurotransmitter that, among other functions, modulates our contact with “consensus reality.” DMT is secreted in the human body in trace amounts by the pineal gland and is found in plants throughout South America. In the early ’90s, Dr. Rick Strassman was given federal approval for a DMT study. When injected with DMT, the subjects of his experiment all described entering completely convincing alternate dimensions and returning to their bodies in less than ten minutes. In his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman theorizes that DMT brings the reincarnating soul into the body during fetal development and releases it at death. It may be the case that a tiny trickle of DMT modulates the dream state during sleep. It seems quite logical to me that techniques for heightening consciousness might have allowed alchemical adepts to stimulate production of DMT-thus giving them immediate access to these occult dimensions.

It is significant that Tibetan Buddhism-the only ancient “solar” culture to survive intact into the current age-also employs a powerful system of dream yoga, whereby awareness is developed through dreams and even during dreamless sleep. But the system differs from the alchemy Evola describes in a significant way: The ultimate aim of Tibetan dream yoga is to maintain a state of purified awareness. When you achieve enlightenment, you escape further incarnation by returning to the primordial ocean of pure superconsciousness. The aim of Western alchemy, on the other hand, is to enter the spiritual world and participate as an equal. This reveals a profound difference between the deepest goals of Western and Eastern psychic development. It may also indicate that Buddhism, despite its current popularity, is ultimately not appropriate for Westerners.

Evola’s account of the decline of humanity in Revolt Against the Modern World is extremely depressing. Yet he recognized that our current low point is a necessary stage in our karmic destiny. The establishment of a purely materialist and empirical consciousness was one of humanity’s possibilities and had to reach its apotheosis at some point. We are now at that point. We have ruined the climate and polluted the world. The senselessness, the horror, of developing powerful destructive technologies without a concurrent evolution in spiritual consciousness is increasingly clear. In the next few years, it will become even more terrifyingly evident. We may not like to admit it, but this “civilization” we have constructed-on entirely false principles-is in a state of imminent collapse. Evola’s radical thought supports Andre Malraux’s inescapable dictum that “The twenty-first century will be mystical, or it will not be.”