17 November 2017


Gary Lachman. Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Floris Books, 2017.

“That is the job of the left brain…Its business is to ‘unpack’ what the right brain ‘presents’ to ‘spell it out’ as it were, to focus on the individual trees that make up the forest given it by the right brain – and eventually to focus on the individual leaves of a given tree with ‘meaning perception’ while the left is concerned with ‘immediacy perception.’ We could also say that the left brain knows through Aquinas ‘active search’ for knowledge while the right has the ‘intuitive possession’ of it.”
“What this has resulted in, McGilchrist argues, is an increasingly fragmented picture of the world, with less and less awareness of the intuitive glue, needed to hold things together.”

“Two souls, alas, live in my breast.” He may have got his anatomy wrong, but the insight is clear. Yet Goethe might have added: And they don’t get along.”

I’ve prefaced my review of Lost Knowledge of The Imagination with these quotes as being appropriate for Gary Lachman’s argument to urgently recover our ‘poetic’ imagination, where we once instinctively understood nature “at a glance” without a prior need to analyse it to destruction. According to Lachman this tension between our inner and outer perception of the world started with the revolutions of the 17th century when science throw out the old shibboleths of superstition and questioned God’s authority. Unfortunately this resulted in a mechanistic view of ourselves and our place in the world. Our intuitive faculties were suppressed when they could have helped guide us through our over-rational material and technological progress.

I don’t think that Lachman considers this to be a new or novel insight into the way our 'impoverished’ minds (outside of the artist, poet and philosopher) function. Many previous writers have attempted such a cultural overview of the imbalance created by a skewed perception of creativity, imagination and rational thought. Reach back to 1976 and you’ll find similar ideas propounded by Erich Fromm in his book To Have or To Be. He neatly stated that if coming across a beautiful wild flower in a wood, do you pick it up to examine its petals (murder to dissect) or leave it in its natural habitat and just let your eyes take in its beauty from a distance? Swop Fromm’s flower for Lachman’s tree in the wood and you have the same dilemma about greed, exploitation and possession versus sustainability, letting go and the contemplation of nature.

Gary Lachman has done an impressive amount of research. His thesis is very carefully laid out and his conclusions are sensible and attractive. Owen Barfield, Kathleen Raine (A fine and unfairly neglected poet) Carl Jung, Goethe, Husserl, Henry Corbin and cultural critic Erich Heller plus many others are sensitively drawn on. All have fascinating things to say about the lack of creative dialogue between “the requirements of positivism” and as Lachman says quoting Goethe “the harmony of the hidden law in the world within the hidden law within ourselves.”

Unfortunately Lachman’s writing is a bit pedestrian and repetitive. The evidence of a dangerous split in modern consciousness is all there but does he add anything insightful to help us move on? Not really. After six chapters Lachman quietly ends with uncertainty about our state of flux over the continual mental fragmentation of society. We must be vigilant in this phenomenal world: engaging with more subtlety and (To employ Owen Barfield’s lovely word) finesse.

If only Lost Knowledge of The Imagination had had the energy and drive of its penultimate chapter, The Learning of The Imagination. Here Lachman sounds really engaged and makes incisive connections between Kathleen Raine (As William Blake scholar), the S.T. Coleridge of “primary imagination”, W.B.Yeats and Thomas Taylor (19th century writer and associate of John Flaxman – the artist friend of Blake). Such a strong and convincing chapter could (with a summary of Lachman’s basic argument) be published as a separate pamphlet. Here the case is effectively made for poetry (read as imagination containing the ‘soul’ part of the brain) and science (read as transformed political reality) to be in a Blakean contrary state of interdependence of each another: still relevantly connected but not at war.

I’ve enjoyed previous books by Gary Lachman (Especially his Turn of Your mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of The Age of Aquarius) but this is not one of his best. That’s not to say that his thesis doesn’t matter. It does, very much. We do need a mental re-balancing of our psyche. But it’s a long haul and I do wish Lachman could have been more inspiring and directive: supplied some suggestions as to how his “intuitive glue” (A great term, that) could cement the cracks. – Alan Price


  1. Many thanks for this review. Can I point out though that if my writing here is "pedestrian and repetitive," the reviewer's is in need of a proof-reader? When talking about the two souls that dwell within his breast, Goethe got his "astronomy wrong"? And the quotation from the book that starts the review is rather muddled. All the best, Gary.

  2. Oops, sorry, perhaps some auto-correct going on there. Now put right - I hope! -JR