octopus

I had a nice “surprise” the other day, in the form of seeing an old video of Grant Morrison speaking at a Disinformation convention in 1999.

He talked quite a bit about magick, time, being, “individuality” and culture, and mentioned Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, as well as the work of Terrence McKenna and Stan Grof. The latter two were real inspirations for me in the 90s, and there was plenty of times during this talk that I just thought “were we all reading the same stuff, and thinking the same things in the late 90s?!”. It was pretty delightful.

Terrence McKenna was a neo-psychedelicist, a playful and visionary thinker, and a beautiful mind to behold. Catch up on True Hallucinations if you get the chance. Stan Grof is a consciousness researcher with roots in psychedelic psychiatric therapies, who with his wife Christina pioneered Holotropic Breathwork, a technique I credit with freeing me significantly near the end of my thirties.

I found both these writers after I had gone through my own breakthrough at the beginning of the 90s, where I came to experience the Oneness of Being, and the inversion (or suspension) of conventional ideas of causality, and of temporospatially located being. It’s not so much a long story as a big one that isn’t conventionally describable, but it was one in which “the heart” became central. A lot of things opened up for me after that, because my understanding was so utterly different at a certain level. Grant Morrison really reminded me of that.

At one point he talks about how if you were a two-dimensional being, and someone stuck their fingers through your plane of existence, you would not see four fingers of a hand, you would see the four separate circles formed by the intersection of those fingers with the plane you existed on. And we, with our normal idea of being are that far from the higher dimensional reality of being. We see slices through time and we think “we” are “here”. And Grant exclaimed that same, common perception that  has occurred to so many people, that we are all the same thing. And that being is way more stretchy, continuous, and non-local than we imagine.

Contrary to what people sometimes think, this is not some kind of religious propaganda to divest you of your individuality. The propaganda comes into the limitations of repeated langauge, and how that gets used, but the perception is entirely original and experienceable. And when you experience this, the hilarious enigma of “how can I seem to be here in this body, experiencing myself as really separate?!” presents itself very naturally. It’s a complete mind boggler.

How I came to see “being” (ontos) was as the conscious content of what could be described as tunnels (the fingers of Grant’s “hand”), fractal tunnels that spiralled and branched, in the sensing of my inner imagining. In our identification with the separative body-mind we were right at the tip of these tunnels, and when we are squashed right down the end of these tunnels, we get into all kinds of claustrophobic problems. We struggle in a game that is already over. What we need to do is ease back, to a less cramped, more spacious part of the tunnel, were we can experience a greater bandwidth, and a greater range and inclusion of consciousness. We then find parts of our mind which we weren’t conscious of. Eventually we find that our being is greater, more multiple and more inclusive than we could have imagined. Eventually the tunnels join on to greater tunnels. I can also imagine this as being like an enormous sea creature of consciousness, a massive octopus. We’ve lived in the tips of this creature’s tentacles, as that is how we come to feel (maybe). But as we get to ease back, to inhabiting the tentacle, and not just the tip, and then the branches that the tentacles branch off of – are the tentacles “extinguished” in the whole? No, of course not. It just becomes more intelligent.

Grant was aware of the paradoxical place of “individuality” in this, as it can be identified with the constricted, troubled, tip of the consciousness tentacle. But I think individuality is still important here. If you are talking about conditioned ego and its primate compulsions, then yes, of course it is just a means to an end. A means that cuts us off from our own life in Big Squid (or whatever you want to call “it”). But here’s the conundrum. You need the tip, and the tentacle and everything; and the life of Big Squid is just what we feel in ourselves as living individuals. I don’t think the individual is, as Grant thought, just “scaffolding” for building this other thing. And remember as well, Big Squid is not in time the way that we are. It’s a very enigmatic scheme, which we can mainly only intimate, as it is itself the stuff of which our consciousness is made. Like a language that writes itself, and writes its own reading into its very texture. We are the implicit stories and meaning that emerges from this self generating langauge.

You might ask where is the Satanist in all this, and I would say right in the magick, in the paradox, in the exploration. I’m not so much a mystic, as a marine biologist here, albeit part of the animal. Most Satanists acknowledge “Nature”, albeit as including those things we pretend to be “against Nature”.

Magick itself needs both perspectives. That is why I love both the underestimatedly trippy work of Marion Weinstein, and the original (but more oppositional or poetic) brilliance of Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. Big Squid is just about everything, and the “extended being” experience does have applications in both magick and healing. But the paradoxical condition of the lights being on and someone really being home is down to you, just you. You, that unique, ruthless, tentacular beauty. Otherwise you are not writing the part of the langauge that only you can write, and you are reading the wrong script, acting in a film you are not included in. And how could you possibly enjoy that? You absolutely need both, and you’d be right to not want to be hoodwinked into being part of a film that doesn’t even have a director. You are the only director for your film. You just don’t realize how big and deep “you” is. That’s why Grant in the video was so insistent that you try this stuff out.

You could do so much with this.

Octopus vulgaris by Beckmannjan at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - digitally altered

Octopus vulgaris by Beckmannjan at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – digitally altered

remembrance of The Beast

I recently finished reading Martin Booth’s biography of Aleister Crowley, A Magick Life, which I think I first started 5 years ago but got side tracked on.

This must be the third biography of Crowley that I’ve read, starting with The Great Beast by John Symonds in my late teens, which while not considered a sympathetic or unbiased account, did manage to inspire me in parts nonetheless. My favourite had been The Magical World of Aleister Crowley by Francis King, which was more sympathetic. This latest book was really worth reading though, as it gives a fair treatment without smoothing over Crowley’s faults, and uncovers facts and follows up leads that do fill out the story, especially with respect to some of Crowley’s followers and “Scarlet Women”.

Some of the story remains boring for me (mountaineering, just not my thing), and Crowley’s British Empire attitude, combined with his apparently inflated personal self-assessments do rankle, as does his callous and careless treatment of a good few people in the story. But we know about that already, and he did anything but try to hide it. What Booth’s account does add though is that extra detail about the people who were part of AC’s life (including his children), and underneath all the exorbitant surface of a life lived so large, you eventually get a sense of the human reality underneath it all. That, and Crowley’s undoubted genuineness in his dedication to Thelema. By the end of the story I felt I had a deeper, more well rounded and related sense of this man than I have had before. His last days, tended by a former partner (Deirdre McAlpine) and their son are really moving. At the end I felt he had love and a peaceful (if still somewhat notorious) happiness, and that touched me.

In an odd way, his life seems like a “decline” into humanity. He becomes more creatively interesting to me as his money runs out (which is also when he really starts painting, so maybe that is my bias) and his imperial, pseudo-aristocratic attitudes lose their back up in America. I had always been greatly seduced (and certainly inspired) by tales of The Abbey of Thelema in my youth, but here it appears as an exotic but disastrous failure in terms of essential hygiene, practicalities and public relations. Ahead of its time as a learning experiment, but nevertheless a failure. Crowley wanted to do an Abbey 2.0 with a tighter run ship and more selectivity, but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately so much of the records of the Abbey were seized and destroyed by the authorities as “obscene” that the experiment’s researches are largely lost.

I was very interested to hear more about Leah Hirsig, one of Crowley’s most famous “Scarlet Women”, and certainly a figure in her own right. She was there with him from his painting years in America, through The Abbey at Cefalù, to some time after, in spite of being largely abandoned by Crowley. She continued with amazing strength and commitment to Thelema. She finally repudiated Crowley and her position as Scarlett Woman in 1929, but not her belief in their philosophy, though we don’t know for how long. She went on to the rest of her life, a marriage, and reportedly returned to her career as a teacher of music. Unlike some others who had played the role of Scarlet Woman, she returned as her own person, from precarious positions of poverty and drug dependency. She lived to a good age apparently, dying in 1975 according to internet searches, though Booth puts her year of death as 1951, which would have made her only 67 or 68, still not bad for a woman of the times who had lived life in extremis till her 40s. We don’t have much information about what she lived, believed, thought or might have taught after Crowley. It is one of the unfortunate biases of biography that we register colourful train wrecks better than what might be happier human realities.

I would love to know what she gained from life, and what she made of it. The part in the story where she walks away from Crowley, with considerable dignity, is one that hits a nerve with me, and has me rooting for her. If you have ever loved someone as a virtual god and had them behave accordingly, you will know the hazardous extremes to which it subjects a person, even without it being a Crowley. But in fact that very predicament can be an occupational hazard of loving (though we don’t like to admit it), and certainly of loving sexually and emotionally as an experience of the sacred. Whatever Leah went through, you never felt she was less than her own person, which is what makes her such a compelling figure for me. You can feel how essential her part of the puzzle is, and you can but salute her as both a survivor and a co-creator of a work. Thelema can appear stereotyped in its implied sex role allocations on the surface, but I for one do not believe in that metaphysical “allocation by genitals”, and I do not believe that Thelema is that shallow.

Another figure from the Cefalù period is Jane Wolf, who apparently went on to help found the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis in Southern California, and was its lodge master. I would have liked to read more about Jane Wolf, though of course this was not her biography.

When we get to the War years (WWII) and after, Crowley seems more at peace, in declining health but more stably looked after all in all, though his heroin addiction revived due to the unavailability of an asthma medication from Germany. I always thought that the late production of things like “The Book of Thoth” (and the brilliant tarot cards he produced with Frieda Harris) and “Magick Without Tears”, all in his supposed “twilight years”, showed an astonishingly modern mind of great lucidity, insight and humour. In old age, when Grady McMurtry referred to him as “Master”, Crowley looked over his shoulder and said that he couldn’t see any masters there. The man who had played the part of the colourful, mystical megalomaniac with such determination for so long, apparently dropped the mask of performance near the end. What persisted was his absolute belief in Thelema.

Crowley and the band of bohemian seekers who joined him remain pioneers, especially in these accounts from the 1920s. There is a tremendous amount of the (sometimes tragic) interweaving human stories that are lost, unaccounted for, unrecorded. Israel Regardie once said that had Crowley been living in the 1960s rather than the time he did, he would have been distinguished by his brilliance, but he would otherwise have been largely at home, one among many, rather than the demonized figure he was. In other words, he was too far ahead of his time. That does seem to be true, and the tale of his life does appear like an object lesson in what can happen when the future arrives in a place that isn’t ready for it. I think you can see some of the same in DH Lawrence. What a very extraordinary time it was.

Aleister Crowley with his son

Aleister Crowley with his son

roses for southpaws

I’ve been through what is quite an awesome journey since last Winter, in terms of personal unfoldment, and accepting aspects of my own path and nature. None of this would have been possible without my husband, who is so much the better half of my world that he really is my path. In some sense we always journey together, and his acceptance of me is all the validation I need. Whereas I measure and process and craft and test (and think too much), he seems to just go straight to it and be there already. I’ve learnt to listen to him and his way of being. I used to think I was listening already, but I wasn’t aware of how much of me didn’t, so I’ve learnt to listen more consciously.

I guess I’ve been working on something in myself, back and forth, since the Summer of 2009, when I had a resurgence of appreciation of Thelema and Crowley. Phil was right there, encouraging me, and liking The Beast for his own direct reasons, in his own way. I love Phil, not just ’cause he’s my husband and my life partner, but because I feel so proud of everything he is. He doesn’t care what people think, and he does what he wants, and he knows he’s as good as anyone. I have to learn that lesson, but I’ve really been working on it. The kind of Pagan Phil is, it’s the perfect antidote to all the “court mentality” of some of our imaginary kings and queens and priestesses and politicians. No big deal (kinda the point really), but it’s really good to be free.

Last October something did come home when I wrote this entry to my blog, looking back on the episode of Maat magick which had preceded my breakdown and break through spiritually in 1990. It isn’t quite done to admit any kind of mental instability in magic, and indeed you need to be pretty strong and resilient to go through some processes, but at the same time there is an undoubted kinship between the two areas which may leave some people very uncomfortable. While you do not want people to suffer the awful losses of mental illness (and any responsible person will guard against this for both themselves and others), it remains that there are areas of both which can only be distinguished from each other by where they are going, rather than what they are. “Facing the shadow”, or encountering the “dark night of the soul” are experiences of  failure as profound as anyone could subjectively imagine. They are not symbolic dress rehearsals but, as spiritual experiences, the manifest beneficence which underlies them makes of them a healing and refashioning which defies description. It’s appropriate in some ways that I wrote that blog post after I had completed the elemental reflections that I was engaged with last Summer, ending with fire, as the crisis can be compared to the crowning of elemental existence with spirit (even if the process felt like you were going off the rails and dying!).

The first magical operation I did after my breakthrough (as far as I remember) was a little Hoodoo ritual of Michael Bertiaux’s, which was quite trippy and opened me up dramatically at a certain level, but I had to say a friendly goodbye to the spirits involved after about three nights of strange sleep, crystal clear inner visuals, and the sight of astral black fire which to this day remains one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen, due to its dense blackness and fluid flame motion. Second chakra felt kinda sore by then. It felt entirely benevolent but apparently wasn’t right for me. An intentional and affectionate goodbye, and the spirits were gone on their way.

Both Nema’s Maat Current and Michael Bertiaux had turned up in Kenneth Grant’s “Cults of the Shadow”, a book I had come across while working in a warehouse in Limehouse in 1979 (literally, I was packing the books for mail order). Kenneth Grant had been a deep but mystifying inspiration to me throughout a good deal of my twenties. His exposition of Crowley’s work in “The Magical Revival” was an epiphany for me, and his introduction of Austin Osman Spare through his “Oracles and Images” book was immensely liberating. He also introduced an illuminating exposition of what he termed “the left hand path”¹, a term which was often used elsewhere in a condemnatory sense (an esoteric cross between degenerate, pervert and criminal) but which Grant validated and took back to its Indian tantric roots.

The main reason I bring up Grant is because, along with a renewed affection for the person I was in my early and late twenties, I’ve come to remember how important a vision of the Left Hand Path was for me, and how much it has shaped me spiritually. I had not followed a conventional path by anybody’s criteria, the central part being art with magical intention or inspiration, a very personal practice that sought to both explore the self and its inward worlds, and open doors to other places. Spare was my biggest inspiration, but I also felt a great kinship with the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton. That was buttressed by Crowley and more conventional material from the likes of Israel Regardie.

I was in a position though where I needed to explore conventional (“right hand path”) material to gain psychological strengths that I lacked (to “grow up” basically), but “the way” was clearly left hand path to my view and sensibility. This was further complicated by the fact that, as a gay man, conventional right hand path material could not help me reach psychological strength and maturity, as it did not accept my valid existence. Grant’s presentation of the left hand path, for that matter, seemed to skirt my existence also in his overwhelming focus on heterosexuality and an objectified vision of the magickal power of “woman”. How dated that use of the term “woman” seems now (and it was irksome then), but I believe it can actually be seen to underly quite a few physical gender obsessions within neopaganism, like we never got past 1960 or something. I believe in “Cults of the Shadow” at one point Grant also puts forth a theory to explain homosexual oral and anal acts in terms of chakra imbalances. There was so much fascinating material and inspiration, but nowhere to stand. One of the reasons I felt so close to Spare was that with the ecstatic content of his work, there was no judgement. Also, with both Crowley and Spare the individual was sovereign, and there at least there was sanctuary, and an exultant one.

Of all the gods I saw mentioned in my readings of Thelema, the one that stands out is the Egyptian Set. You couldn’t find a more demonized figure to western esotericism really, as the later myths that came down cast him as a cosmic Cain, and what he does to Osiris there is a kinda Sweeny Todd study in  mythological forensics. But the ambiguous, complex figure of Set is much older than that story, and he was indeed worshipped and accorded great honour in his time. He could never be quite kicked out anyway, as he remains on the solar barque at the crucial moment when Ra is threatened by the serpent monster Apep, and there Set is, the only one capable of defeating the monster and letting the Sun go on to rise again. It looks like later ages couldn’t live with him, but they couldn’t quite live without him either.

My feelings for Set have proved to be deep and abiding, sleeping at the back of my being like the peaceful, low hum of bees at rest, waiting for over twenty years for me to turn around and notice. Words do fail me here, but I can add that this is another place where Phil has just understood immediately and without question. There is a beautiful and tantalising exposition of the nature of Set in Katon Shual’s “Sexual Magick“, as a god of ambiguity and confusion, sexuality (especially non-procreative sexuality) and sexual magick, and the many formed reality (and unreality) of gender, as well as being a god of foreigners and frontiers. This book has some wonderful treasures within it, such as the account of Moses Long’s experiments as a 17th century conjuror in the field of sexual magick in “the conjuration of Angels”. There were things in this, the latest, revised edition of “Sexual Magick” that had me laughing with recognition, and the author treats the subject with great kindness and humanity. I recommend this book very highly.

The chapter dealing with “The Mysteries of Seth” features a section which takes on the form of a communication from the god in response to questions, and I was really struck by how much this reminded me of some of my old inspiration Richard Gardner’s writing in books like “The Tarot Speaks” and “Evolution Through the Tarot”, where he tried to let the images of the cards speak through him. Richard, like Katon Shual, rated Wilhelm Reich, and though the time he was coming from had a strong sense of the gender binary, he would have been the first to throw off anything that he saw as closing people’s minds to the realities of sex, sexuality, love and consciousness. Richard had enough of the benign trickster to him to be a little god of confusion himself, but reading that section of Katon’s book, I almost felt like I was hearing the same voice at times.

Inevitably, if you follow the path of magick, you follow a road to a place which has been culturally outlawed for a very long time. We sometimes persuade ourselves that we have come a long way since the Victorian era, but our collective life still cherishes ignorance and a repression of love and sex under so many of its polished, professional or sentimental surfaces. But still people have the courage to follow that other call. It can be done, and anyone who has the heart and soul for it should follow their heart.

Some of the things I remember from Kenneth Grant’s exposition of the 93 current² and its aquarian implications were the shift in the formula of magic from ritual (Virgo-Pisces) to direct astral magic, and especially the use of sexuality and the sexual current (Leo-Aquarius). The other was the sovereignty of the individual. Grant could sound rather daunting and clinical at times, rather unfeeling, but I’ve come to understand that the actual work is anything but that. I am neither the thelemic hero nor the scarlet woman, and the stereotypes don’t really speak to me or my experience. I am exactly the post-punk hippie tree hugger that I am, with a husband that means the whole world to me, living happily in our home in East London. But I actually now recognise that, as the person I am, I have largely followed this path, through an emerging predisposition rather than conscious design. With my husband, and in completely idiosyncratic ways, I have left behind ritual of all but the simplest form, and focussed on sexuality and eroticism, natural trance states arising from the body and emotions, and congress with our beloved deities and spirits. And that is a very loving, practical, authentic and nourishing experience.

Of course terms like “left hand path” and “right hand path” are categories in our heads, but I’m happy to acknowledge the strange, beautiful and liberating garden I once found under the left hand sign. Though the path has been a long one, I realize I still live in that garden, and you can live in that garden with love.

photo of altar with votive figure of Set animal, hand made by Nicholas from Shadow of the Sphinx (http://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/shadowofthesphinx). He now has his own altar :0)

¹ a reasonable jumping off point discussion of the terms “right” and “left hand path” can be found here.

² ie of Thelema