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Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law

 For nearly a century, a particular archetype has dominated occult fiction, particularly the sort written by Initiates. I will call it the Dr. Taverner model, after Dion Fortune’s alienist cum Adept. Though the pattern precedes her work, Taverner is the most well-known example of it, and arguably one of the most well executed. The basic archetype, which has seen little variation over the decades, is that of a confident pedant with the sort of character that middle class English people of the 1930s would have called “impeccable.” He (almost never do we see a female version) steps in and solves problems that stump ordinary mortals with wisdom gained from years of walking the Path of the Mysteries.

I think there are several problems with the continued appearance of this archetype. First and most important is that I think we are capable of creating a new character of our own. One that, at the very least, bears some resemblance to the sort of person we are likely to encounter in our post-modern, cynical era. They need not be on the extreme end of moral ambiguity, though that is the direction I tend to take in my own fiction. But in a context such as our own, he or, preferably she, really ought to have a few “spikes.” Even Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict, for instance, and he is a clear antecedent for Taverner and all the Tavenerlets that have followed.

Further, the clones of Taverner show marked genetic deterioration. In many ways, Dion Fortune was a novelist first, and a purveyor of occult teaching second. The same cannot be said of her literary descendants. There are occult detective stories out there that make Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni look like a subtle character study.

And, we might as well be blunt about this, in any other literary context a completely self-assured character of “impeccable” morals would be the foil for dramatic or comic irony. We would be waiting for the moment when their pretense comes back to bite them on the ass. When some detail, dismissed as if it were a fly buzzing near the foil’s ear, is revealed to be the fact that the entire affair hangs upon. This is not a post-modern or even modern tradition in storytelling. It goes all the way back to good old, Aristotelian Tragedy. The general flaw was called Hubris, subdivided into different variations, each adding a particular tone to the story.  To have such an individual breeze through their predicament with little doubt as to the outcome is, simply put, bad narrative form.

The point of experiencing a story is to watch a character or group of characters undergo some fundamental change. Television shows and special-effects showcase movies often forget this, but the best ones do not. The shows we remember, the movies we watch over and over again, do not simply pander to our desire to see shit get blown up or heroes battle impressive monsters. What Samwise in The Lord of the Rings might call “stories that matter” invariably show us a protagonist who has not only overcome the obstacles set before them, but also become a different person in the process.

Dion Fortune’s best work, The Sea Priestess or The Goat Foot God, for example, does a fine job of this. The protagonists in both of those books end the story in a place very far from where they were at the beginning. And while there are shades of the Infallible Adept in Vivian Le Fay Morgan, nothing of the sort can be found in Goat Foot God. If you’re going to mimic a better writer, why not choose to imitate her best work, rather than her embryonic first effort?

Perhaps it is sentiment, but I think it goes back to pandering and egotism. The Dr. Taverner model is a very effective version of what is called a “Mary Sue,” a sock puppet for the author. A Mary Sue actually does two disservices, one to the author, the other to the reader. It allows the author to reify her ego, rather than explore the parts of her that need to express themselves in the story. She is effectively asking the reader to either accept her received wisdom, or to actually identify with her, or both. This demonstrates a certain neurotic insecurity as well as a total lack of understanding as to what fiction is really there for. The reader, by either identifying with or succumbing to fawning admiration of the author, is robbed of the cathartic experience of living through a pivotal experience with a well thought out character.

What I’m arguing for is not necessarily the retiring of Dr. Taverner type characters. I think it is more important that occultists who venture to create fiction at least attempt to learn something about the craft of narrative composition before they foist their works upon the public. If you’re going to go the detective/psychiatrist/fill-in-the-blank- who-is-also-an-Adept route, at least make them a person. Give them flaws. Take the time to construct a psychologically believable human being. We owe that to the reader, and to ourselves.

Love is the Law, Love under Will

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The Word, and the rational intellect, can be credited with creating human civilization. This is not only because reason is necessary to communicate important facts such as where a building’s foundation should be or how many swords are available for “N” number of warriors. The Word, in the Hermetic sense, creates a story that a civilization then embodies. This story determines what can and cannot be conceptualized until a new Word is uttered by a Magus to come.

Given the great power of the rational intellect, one would easily understand that it is crafting the world as well as describing it. This is generally not the case. The Word is in the hands of both Tahuti and his Ape. Tradition has it that the Magus is followed by the Ape of Thoth, who ensures that all his words will be misunderstood. The Word, once the pure expression of a Cosmic Mystery, has now become trapped in a thicket of its own ramifications and reifications. Like all contingent phenomena, it is ultimately impermanent and unsatisfactory.

Which brings me, as usual, to Ken Wilber. (Really this obsession is unhealthy. I should get help.) In his AQAL map, intellectual development is said to be “necessary but not sufficient” for spiritual development. This is, I feel, like most things which are spoken, both true and untrue. Wilber’s teleology demands that the monkey learn to speak before it can climb to the heights of the Non-dual.

But what if it learns to speak lies? Can it ultimately learn anything else?

One gets the feeling that it wouldn’t matter. The development of the cognitive faculty would, in itself, be the sole requirement. As the Cosmos is in process, every statement we make can be considered true, false, and meaningless, depending on what point in time we are discussing. The mind can be thought of as a great spoon, dipping again into a boiling soup of events, concepts, wars, famines, movie premiers, and pornographic ice cream wrappers. The spoonful it brings out of this chaos it calls “reality.” But it tends to go for the same kinds of food each time, since it has now defined that which it has not picked out before “not food.”

Even so, we must learn to use the spoon. To simply sit on the edge, trying to make sense of the swirling chaos, will not serve us. And we must learn to discriminate, since there are poisons in that stew as well as nourishment. Knowing it is all temporary, we can enjoy the meal without expecting it to be the same every time.

The Ape of Thoth is both our adversary and ally. His jokes are annoying, and he always makes us look like fools. But he also helps us by showing us that the universe doesn’t play by our rules. We only have a certain degree of control over anything, and the Ape is there to help us laugh when we try too hard.

Eventually, when we have learned how to work with the Ape, we can even begin to ignore those poisons we had to avoid. The mind is capable, if developed beyond mere analysis, of transmuting these poisons into wisdom. But it takes time, and we must pay our dues to the Ape before Tahuti will speak to us in plain english.

We are aware of something called a “past.” In the realm of common human experience, at least, we find ourselves remembering something which happened “before” the current moment. Leaving aside the metaphysical questions around this, our human brains require that some kind of pattern or story be imposed on this collection of memories. On the personal scale, we are all familiar with how we create a personal narrative around the events of our lives. Likewise, on the larger scale of human societies, we craft what are known as “histories.”

Part of Industrial Civilization’s story concerns the notion that there can be some “objective” account of the world, and this includes the idea of “history” as a scientific pursuit rather than an art form. Despite the long erosion of the modern progressivist notions concerning objectivity, most of us tend to approach the study of history as though it were the impartial uncovering of fact. I think that when we reflect on how difficult it can be to get two married people to come to agreement on something that happened to both of them years before, we can understand how this notion of an “objective” history is little more than a conceit. The events of the past, like those of today, did not occur at all in the neatly packaged, definite way that we are accustomed to thinking. True, one can find undisputed commonalities. Wars, for instance, would be tough to mistake for something else. (Unless they’re call “police actions…”) We are sometimes fortunate enough to have the diary of someone in power, or other writings. And large scale undertakings leave a definite paper trail. But the assemblage of these items into a coherent story is the job of historians.

Which is where what I call the psychic balkanization of our society comes in. While many are aware that the evaluation of facts is largely guided by social programming, there is still pressure to find a “true” story. This is largely the province of amateur historians who are intent on proving some pet theory, or worse “debunking” someone else’s. These individuals will largely rely on secondary sources, and these sources will be of a particular “school” within various history departments. Thus, you have numerous groups of individuals all reading from their pet clique’s historical material, and creating what amounts to propaganda for the viewpoint that attracted them to that school in the first place. The result of this is the nauseating circle jerk mentality found in internet forums, where those not initiated will be mocked, abused, or condescended to depending on how polite the person they encounter happens to be.

This is important for Pagans, since we are often embroiled in historical controversy, generally centered around the assertions of non-professionals. So we hear that so and so has “debunked” the Burning Times “myth,” for instance. To begin with, the word “debunk” is almost exclusively used by that odious group of reductionist materialists who have the audacity to call themselves “skeptics.” It means nothing more than arranging facts in a way that suits certain a priory assumptions and then be unusually snarky about it. Second, the use of the word “myth” in this way is denigrating to Paganism. It simply means “fiction” or a “lie.” The allied assumption then, is that there is some generally agreed upon, uncontroversial “true story” when such a story will never be found. Because history isn’t an account of facts but an interpretation of them.

I could belabor the particular example, but I won’t. The specifics are far less important than the general tendency. Quite often, when we approach history, we don’t realize that there is a kind ideology behind the way the facts are being presented. It’s premature to jump on a particular book or article and say that this has, once and for all, proven or disproven this or that idea. No discipline actually works this way, and I think it’s important to remember that. It might, at the very least, increase the general level of comity in our community, which I feel is something we need.

I came across this recent article on Witchvox. The author, one Juniper, gives her rather caustic opinion of why we don’t see “greats” like Crowley or Dion Fortune these days. A sample:

There are no more Gardners and Crowleys because we are afraid. Afraid of controversy, afraid of not being politically correct, afraid of being judged, afraid of ourselves, afraid of what the neighbors might think. Afraid of what the rest of the pagan community might think or do.

Hmm…

There are a number of things that are simply wrongheaded here. The usage of “politically correct” as a slur or snarl phrase, for instance. But the main interesting question is: why do we consider Crowley, Fortune, Gardner, or anyone “great” in the first place? I know, I know “trailblazers” and so forth. But a pioneer is just that. The first or one of the first to do something in a particular field. This is important in the sense that everything afterward will have to refer back to the pioneer to some extent. Beyond that, all this talk of past greatness compared to today’s mediocrity sounds downright reactionary.

One big reason that we don’t find breathless, cult-like followings around legitimate magickal groups and individuals is, I think, because such hero worship is inappropriate in the context of postmodern society in general and Occulture in particular. An individual such as Gardner or Crowley or Mather could pull off something like a claim that they were in touch with an unbroken tradition or the “Secret Chiefs.” That sort of assertion was quite popular back then, and widely believed in. Today, people who make such claims are much more likely to be greeted with well deserved sarcasm.

With the possible exception of Dion Fortune, the “greatness” of most historical occult figures was the result of sheer self-promotion. If Crowley were alive today, he’d be publishing with LuLu and running a daily blog in which he ranted about gun control. Mathers was almost all bluff. And Gardner… we won’t talk about his quirks.

The implicit assumption of Juniper’s article, that notoriety equals greatness, misses the point of engaging in a spiritual discipline in the first place. Being “great,” if it happens at all, should be an accident. The first job of any magick worker is to wake up. Then, later, if others listen and are aided on their journey, that is good, and shows a certain degree of attainment on the individual’s part. Starting on the journey with the idea of being some great Uber-Magus is a good way to ensure ego inflation and becoming the master of your mother’s basement.

The reason we don’t have people like Crowley anymore is that we’ve grown out of needing them. There are too many valid voices and perspectives, too many avenues to explore for us to get caught up in the game of treating an individual as if they had the Keys to the Mysteries of the Universe. The very notion that such a single Key exists is both naive and dangerous.

I’ll grant, we may have lost some “edge” as Neopaganism and magick become more visible in the “mainstream.” Then again, would the “edge” we had even mean anything today?

I would say, if what you end up doing disturbs people, that is good. If it does not, that is good too. So long as it is what you are truly lead to do. For my part, I would rather be a person than a personality. Should anyone ever claim me as a “great” anything (blessedly unlikely) I hope I am many years dead so that I don’t have to hear it.

I started, long ago, with a fundamental question: how can two magickal systems with radically different ontologies produce results? One answer is, of course, that different systems aim for results that are radically different. But this still leaves the question partly unanswered, because if the way that a system describes the universe is simply wrong, it shouldn’t work at all. We are assuming, for the purposes of this essay, that a given system isn’t simply a way to delude oneself into thinking something is happening. So, what’s up here? How can it be that both say, Vou Doun and Ceremonial Magick produce anything that an individual who is not self deluded would call “concrete results?”

I looked, at one point, at the ways in which the different systems of magick in fact have much in common. That is a much larger view. On the ground, we’re still dealing with different sets of entities, cosmological maps, and mythologies. In this case, I’m aiming for something less metaphysical and more operational.

What I would propose is that the thoughtform can be considered the primary medium of magick. A thoughtform is basically a construct of psychic energy. When a thoughtform is shared, it becomes an egregore, and when it grows up and has many followers, it can become a deity. Different systems also have an egregore, which determines to a large (but not complete) extent the kinds of experiences within that system.

The basic assumption here is that occult praxis requires some species of philosophical idealism (where mind or consciousness is taken to be the basic nature of reality) in order to be comprehensible. Certainly, one can try to find a reductive materialist interpretation, as arguably the preoccupation with a fairly marginal interpretation of quantum physics tries to do. But this more than likely will fall apart upon serious examination. It makes far more sense to assume that consciousness forms the basis of manifest reality and leave it at that, without attempting a shotgun marriage to mainstream science in order to justify oneself to people who will simply not listen anyway.

Idealism being assumed, we then note that this consciousness has various qualitative levels, for “as above, so below.” We go from waking to dreaming to deep sleep. In the Cosmos we find gross, suble, and causal. Within the subtle realm, we note various trajectories. There are the emotions, for instance. There are also natural forces, and the genii loci or “spirits of a place.” What we are dealing with, I think, are aggregates of consciousness given a particular quality by the various eddies of causality from which they have emerged.

These aggregates then impact human consciousness, which responds by creating a human face. This face colors the response to the aggregate force involved. Over time, this face becomes part of a pattern of interaction and expectations around that interaction.

I don’t think it is quite the case that humans “create Gods in their own image,” but rather, create their image of the Gods according to the dictates of their cultural circumstance. If a God gets buried for awhile, largely forgotten by human culture, when it again emerges, it will be colored by that culture as much as the one that first encountered the original aggregate and created a cluster of associations with it.

There are also, I think, levels of awareness on the part of thoughtforms. Being consciousness, like everything else, all thoughtforms are in some sense “aware.” But, like any other entity, there is awareness of the world around you, and the awareness of being conscious, or “self awareness.” A simple servitor construct, for instance, has very little self awareness. Over time, if fed and interacted with, something will click and the servitor will wake up and start acting somewhat autonomously. But one off creations such as artificial elementals are necessarily limited in this regard.

Natural forces, as any weather witch knows, have their own personality. Thoughtforms around the big, unstoppable, eternal forces of the cosmos quickly become Gods, as do those entities corresponding to the Archetypes in the collective unconscious. These latter should not be reduced to the patterns of Jungian analysis, however. They emerge from the stew Jung identified, but are no more “mere” symbolic representations of them than humans are “just” examples of the primordial sea from which the first fish with legs emerged.

My reason for thinking of the thoughtform as the basic medium of magick has to do with my own peculiar hierarchy of value when it comes to theory. If a concept can be found that identifies a trend or function across systems, without diminishing anything other than the exclusive validity of those systems, I think it is more “true” than those other conceptual frameworks. The thoughtform as a basic medium does this.

First, it identifies a mechanism that can be clearly seen in almost any context. Whether one is dealing with the Catholic Mass or the rites of Vou Doun, they will see various thoughtforms at work. And neither system loses by the identification of a common mechanism.

Second, it clears up such quandaries as color associations and the uses of various herbs and stones. For instance, the question of whether specific stones or herbs have inherent magickal properties, or whether the power is “merely” in the practitioners imagination. The answer to that is “yes” to both options. A stone has a particular signature, which gives it a resonance with a very broad but ultimately finite set of phenomena. But the specific usage in a given system is related to the established thoughtform or “spirit” that the users of that system have crafted around that signature. (This need not be conceived of as a “spirit.” It can also be considered dynamistically, as in natural magick.)

Colors, being more etheric in nature, have a much broader (possibly infinite) range as to what they can be related to. In this case, it depends on the system and how it parses the forces behind those colors. One can classify systems as intuitive and rational or planned out. In the former, color associations would be based on emotional response to the hue, as well as more obvious shared symbols. Think green for money. In rational systems, correspondences are based on a framework of associations that can be either channeled or derived by some other form of symbolic exegesis.

Now, naturally, all this falls apart if we abandon idealism, or if we assume that one system really has managed to come across the real absolute and correct structure of the universe. However, I think that for more sophisticated practitioners, the idea of the thoughtform as a basic medium of the Work will help ameliorate pointless controversy and encourage exploration of new possibilities.

Ken Wilber has a lot of very interesting things to say, and his Intergral Philosophy has a great deal to challenge and enliven the practice of magickal practitioners of all stripes. That is, if they can get past his attitudes toward occultists and Neopagans. For instance, what how is a Witch supposed to respond to a statement like this, from A Sociable God?

But it should be noted that most of the teachings and practices that call themselves “esoteric” or “occult” are, in my opinion, prelaw; they are thinly rationalized magic, not psychic and not saintly. Astrology, tarot, ”magick”, voodoo, festival ritual, and such largely follow exactly the deep structure of magical/primary process cognition and they – along with other forms of prelaw, preconventional consciousness – are not seed crystals of the future, unless that future spells regression.1

To begin with, it should be understood that the above statement requires one to have read the entire 127 pages that come before it in order to have some kind of idea what Wilber is actually saying. That being the case, however, what he means is only slightly less pejorative than what it sounds like “cold”. It’s the difference between “you suck” and “you suck if you want to be part of the unfolding of human society toward a fully integrated perspective.” Basically, Wilber has spent so much time in the map he has created (the AQAL or “All Quadrant, All Level” framework) that he cannot distinguish map from territory.

The basic gist of his beef with the occult is two fold. The first would be that it reflects a Romantic desire to return to a theoretically “better” age when we were “in tune with nature” and so forth. This desire, Wilber would say, is a classic pre/trans fallacy in which an early, less differentiated perspective is seen as identical to a later, more integrated one. Like taking the First Matter to already be the Stone of the Wise.
Second, he would say that the occult reflects infantile narcissism, in which the individual literally experiences the world as an extension of his own psyche. Or, in an individual slightly more advance, the mythic perspective in which an animistic universe can be manipulated by signs and actions. All of which can be true, and the modern occult community is filled with people who could make such judgments valid.

But Wilber is not saying that this can be the case, but that it must be, a priory. This is because his AQAL framework requires that there be a Mythic/Magical stage, a Deity Mysticism phase, and a Nondual phase, among others. There is a definite progression, and each stage has a characteristic manner in which it determines the way an individual will experience spiritual phenomena. In other words, in this framework, one can have a peak experience and interpret it in a way that is either characteristic of Magic or Deity viewpoints. Apparently, one cannot use magick from the perspectives beyond the Magical stage and interpret them in those terms.

The issue here is that the AQAL framework contains three divisions when it comes to spirituality. There are states which are experiences within consciousness. Then there are stages, which are the perspectives from which one experiences the various states. Finally, there are lines or streams which are different varieties of intelligence. What Wilber has done with the occult is to assume that the typical occult system or technique necessarily arises from a Magic/Mythic perspective as defined by AQAL. And that perspective is tied to the pre-conventional, narcissistic stage of individual development. So, one cannot use Tarot from a non-dual perspective according to Wilber.

Wilber has, I feel, fallen into the error of assuming that one can understand magick by reading about it. If you could, there would be more adepts and fewer people reigning over their parent’s basements and spending their weekends playing dress up. If there is a tendency toward this sort of thing, it is because many people in our logomaniacal society have committed the same error, not because of any perspective “inherent” in the occult itself.

It’s such a classic example of a map being confused with territory that I almost want to write Wilber a letter about it. But, he’s taken to telling critics to “suck his dick,” so I doubt I’d get a much more constructive response. Perhaps he would benefit from actually meeting, interacting with, and learning from us Romantic narcissists. He’d have a lot more fun, be a little less cranky, and maybe learn something about how mental frameworks distort ones view of a thing.

Which was part of his point to begin with.

1Ken Wilber, A Sociable God Shambhala Publications 1983, revised 2005

Let’s face it, you don’t get involved with the occult unless you’re a little fucked up. Often, it’s little more than a demonstration of Krishnamutri’s whole “what does it mean to be well adjusted in a sick society?” trip. Which is all well and good, and even true. But we occultists are, whatever the cause or character of our condition, fucked up. (I could go through the litany of my many disorders, but it’s kind of a downer. Don’t worry. I’m not excluding myself here.) Just remember, should this thought anger or depress you, that “normal” people in the United States believe they have to develop a personal relationship with a godman who got himself mutilated to death in order to atone for the deleterious effects of a primeval fruit eating incident.

So, being batshit crazy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, present challenges if one actually wants to attain. There are layers to the modern Western Psyche that make “Lord of the Flies” look like Romper Room. To a certain extent, as products of this society, we too have those layers and pathologies. We instantiate these things, as they say. Moving beyond them requires more than just intellectual critique. One must be constantly vigilant about the sorts of games they are willing to play with words in order to justify retreat into a pathological approach they learned in childhood.

It is quite easy for an occultist to develop numerous and sophisticated semantic smog machines. The nature of a symbol being open to infinite interpretation, one can justify any sort of horrific bullshit simply by abstracting the question upward and framing, say, Straussian Neo-conservatism in terms of Qabalistic metaphor. Sometimes you will even find this sort of thing being utilized by people who will agree with you when you say “the map is not the territory.”

The above being said, it bares remembering that some maps do actually describe territory better than others. If you have a Cthulhoid map filled with strange geometries that you got while dreaming about an illicit encounter with a Deep One, it is not likely to get you to the store and back without a certain amount of confusion. Of special concern are the maps that are based on the preconceived ideas you brought with you into this lunacy.

These were developed by an individual even more fucked up than you are now. That being you, before you started to expand your horizons beyond the ordinary kith and kin of Wal-Mart and MTV mass culture. At best, they are well thought out perceptions concerning the little sliver of reality you were able to experience between expulsion from your mother’s womb and eviction from her house. At worst, they are simply retarded. A mass of prejudices and superficial reactions based on the world-view of the people you found yourself getting stoned or drunk with just after you began masturbating regularly. In any case, partial.

Esoteric attainment involves going beyond the merely partial to the… less partial really. More interesting, more ambiguous. Holy Books become cyphers rather than instruction manuals for being human. Politics becomes a reflection of a greater, deeper reality than just the primate mud-slinging of Faux News and “controversies” over the Dixie Chicks. In order to get there, however, you have to be willing to let some of the old programming go. Old values can either get reevaluated, or become reified into mystico-political “philosophies” that demonstrate how the world would be a much better place if every one were just like you.

I promise you, it would not. It would be monotonous and monochrome as a missive from Mathers. Like a church social where everyone wears grey. In other words: fucking boring.

The point of today’s tirade is that we need to learn to separate spiritual experiences from the ideas that come into our head after we have them. These are roughly akin to the protest one hears from the muscles after the first few times working out. Your ego is stretching. It hurts, and wants to find some balm in the Gillead you have thrust it into. So it makes up a lovely little story that tells you you’re special and that your ideas are destined to become the New Paradigm if only you can convince others by use of all these lovely symbols you’ve memorized.
It can sometimes be useful to engage in symbolic exegesis. But without perspective, the understanding that, in the end you’re just as fucked up as everyone else, it can turn you into a monster.