Monday, 17 May 2010

Review - Phil Harper's Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook

The Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook by Philip Harper

Phil Harper will be a new name to most of you, so the quality of information offered in this slim book may come as a surprise. Opening with the big questions - What is Magic and Why Do It? - he proceeds to an overview of Classical Western Magic and Chaos Magic. From the start, Harper writes with the authority of practical experience, in a competent no-nonsense fashion. The topics covered include reviews of basic Qabalah, basic magical training in the skills that will be familiar to anyone who has followed a well-rounded training scheme, the temple and tools, banishing rituals, sigils, divination and servitors.

This selection of material is, of course, not entirely original; if you are writing about using Qabalah as your main magical model, you have to give at least a review of a tradition of at least a couple of centuries' worth of magical literature. So the book goes over ground you could find in other books, but brings it all together in this one highly readable volume - adding the dimension of a rigorous Chaos Magick approach. The mix reminds me a bit of USA writer Steven Mace's blend of Thelemic qabalah with a critical, evidence-based CM approach (for samples of Mace's work see early editions of Chaos International).

Neither is this a mere flavour, the shallow eclecticism of the chaos magick dilletante - Harper is clearly serious about going the whole way, attaining all that can be attained on the magical path, and he shows abundant common sense in evaluating the magical orders on the market in the final chapter, Orders, Initiations and Grades.

So who is Mr Harper writing for here? Basically, a beginner, because it brings it all together in one book, but an intelligent beginner who does not want spoon feeding, and is not afraid of doing some disciplined magical work. In other words, a proper aspirant to the magical knowledge that can only be gained by working on yourself.

In other words, this book is sufficiently serious to put off most armchair magicians.

If this, his first book, is anything to go by, Philip Harper is likely to be heard of again. Check out his informative and courageous blog at http://ritualchaosmagic.blogspot.com/
I say courageous because how many magicians do you know who would post up a video of themselves skrying the Enochian 29th Aethyr? And he writes that:
'On the 10th of May 2010, at about 1:10am I successfully gained the Knowledge and Conversation of my Holy Guardian Angel....'

Phil's main website, http://www.ritualchaosmagic.co.uk/ is a treasure trove of resources for the curious magician and well worth a visit.

The Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook is available on lulu.com as ebook or printed copy.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Book of English Magic by Phillip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate.

Some readers may have read an earlier and very brief review I did of this book. That was based on the pages I was initially sent - the Introduction and a breezy and lucid introduction to the life of David Conway, which sits at the end of the final chapter, 'The Wizards' Return', more about which later. The first impression I got off those few pages suggested that it wasn't the kind of book that tells you much about how to do magic, more of an amusing overview of the scene for an absolute beginner.

However, when I received the full volume, I changed my mind. The intro promises 'suggestions for sites to visit and experiments to perform', and these invitations to actually get involved in personal magical research is one of the central strengths of the book. Each chapter also includes one or two personal accounts from a practitioner of that aspect of the magic arts. These mini-biographies give useful starting-points for further reading.

The magical names mentioned include the usual suspects, plus plenty of people I'd never heard of, including innovative female magicians such as the 16th century Mary Sidney and hedge witch Tamsin Blight. The connections made span high society to low, and ancient to modern times.
There are also some interesting details about the ancient world that take the reader on a quick flight over vast eras, for instance how the 850 BCE cold spell influenced the ancient cultures that suffered it, and what with some nice little asides and references to the various fictional treatments of the historical eras mentioned, this is a rich and tasty mix of ideas.

So how does it shape up in how it treats the various currents and styles of English magic?
Starting with ley lines and dowsing, the authors pursue a non-judgmental approach to
fantastical notions like continent-wide energy-lines. Their attitude to the varieties of witchcraft is also balanced and they give a sensible treatment of the dangers of the magical path.

Neither are the authors afraid to tackle contentious topics. They engage with the drugs taboo, kicking off the Aleister Crowley chapter with an account of AC's mescalin-soaked Artemis ritual.
Sexual magic is framed as 'modern English tantra', with references to Dion Fortune as well as AC. The text follows the thread of the erosion of restrictive sexual mores which facilitated an opening-up of useful information about the magics of sex.

Now for the few bones I have to pick. No surprise, these are in the areas I know something about - chaos magic and the Northern way.
The authors rightly condemn the ludicrous rune-fantasies of Ralph Blum. (There ought to be some kind of recognition for the dissemination of the most misleading esoteric lies - maybe we could call it the Ralph Blum Award?) But they fail to mention the most academically-rigorous rune writer in the world, Edred Thorsson, aka Stephen Flowers, whose work has established a sound basis for the current, much better-informed resurgence of interest in Northern mysteries.

The chapter on Anglo-Saxon magic starts promisingly, but then we are plunged into the highly dubious territory of so-called shamanism with the thoughts of Peter Aziz. This monologue not only exemplifies the pot-pourri of personally significant bits of technique that the word 'shamanism' has become associated with but is utterly irrelevant to Anglo-Saxon sorcery.
Michael Harner's 'core shamanism' - is also mentioned, and it's about time this movement was put into perspective. This kind of generalizing discourse serves largely to muddy up the waters of research into the genuine magical practices of ancient traditions by blurring it all together into something that can be learned in a few (costly) weekend retreats.

Since the book also misplaces Diane Paxson amongst 'rune masters', I'll take a brief detour to criticize her work. She presents a system of 'soul lore' to which she has added a 'higher self'. Now this isn't as ludicrous as Blum's addition of a blank rune, but there is absolutely no basis for it in the tradition, and it confuses research into the true basis of mystical attainment using germanic soul lore. It is as if Paxson is recommending we try a complex and subtly-flavoured dish, but only after slopping so much Heinz Tomato Ketchup on it we can't taste its special flavours. This is presumably because the sauce is the only flavour on the table that will be familiar to the poor, unadventurous diner.

Now to the chapter on Chaos Magic, 'The Return of the Magicians'. On the upside, the authors have clearly done their research on the origins of the CM current. We are told in the words of Sarah Whittaker about a loosely-defined group of magicians who worked together in Whitby over one summer in the mid-70s, including seminal authors Pete Carroll, Ray Sherwin and Lionel Snell.

This is a convincing account, but I'm in no position to comment on its accuracy, since no-one in the CM scene I've been on for over 30 years had heard of Sarah Whittaker before she published it, and the protagonists of the drama she relates are mostly retired from active service, silent or otherwise out of contact. But it rings true, and is a worthy origin myth.

The David Conway biographical piece really puzzles me though. It's interesting enough, but would someone please tell me what Mr Conway has to do with Chaos Magic? The authors could have interviewed Ian Read, who nurtured the world IOT from England after Pete Carroll resigned in 1991, which makes him one of the most important figures in English chaos magic. Mr Read is well known for his courtesy in granting interviews to many worthy publications, so it would probably have been worth trying to get him on board.

The authors' research is also amusingly outdated in one other small detail. We all know how subcultural stereotyping is useful, working like branding as an extreme shorthand for a complex slew of associations. It made me smile to read, among a list of musical styles associated with different magical currents, to see chaos magic associated with heavy metal. My eyes defocus as I recall fond 1980s memories of demonic black t-shirts sweated in to a soundtrack of dark industrial rock. But please, that was a long time ago, and never heavy metal! A quick straw poll of chaos magician friends' current playlists nets Miles Davis, Wagner, Jimi Hendrix, Jajouka, neo-folk, dance music and the microtonal song styles of old Europe.

Having said that, there's still a big, vital narrative in this book. The Introduction states that '...of all the countries in the world, England has the richest and most varied history of magical lore', and it makes this point well, giving a glimpse into the enchanted undergrowth of England's culture, countryside and ancient cities.
This is a good thing; everyone but the English are proud of their cultural roots - as if English was the language of the observer, the special case of a non-magical tradition, viewing with a detached eye the weirdness of other cultures, when in fact we have the richest magical culture in the world.

Despite its flaws, I think this book is destined to become a beloved work of reference for a fair few magicians. I can imagine dusty copies reached down years hence from the shelf, a treasury of magical resources, a little bit like the role Julian Cope's magnificent 'Modern Antiquarian' plays in the exploration of sacred sites.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Dave's new blog

Hello World,
I decided to start this blog to create a new space for the reviews I'm writing, rather than cramming them onto the back pages of my website (www.chaotopia.co.uk).

For my previous reviews, check out the 'Writings' page of chaotopia.co.uk.

I might think of other things to post up here at some stage, but for now here's my first review:

Magick Works by Julian Vayne, Mandrake of Oxford

Readers of books on paganism, chaos magic and psychoactive sacraments may well be familiar with Julian Vayne's characteristic mix of essay, ritual report and personal anecdote. This book reprises that blend – the subtitle is 'Stories of occultism in theory and practice' – and those who enjoy his vivid personal tales of magic will not be disappointed – he reveals a good deal of his personal magical history, telling how he came to magic and relating the magical dimensions of the birth of his son.

The essays are also very interesting, Vayne engaging with theoretical problems from his own special angle. Sex and drugs are woven into stirring and timely interpretations of paganism as a cult of ecstasy, a dimension generally neglected by more conventional (read 'bourgeois'?) pagans. As promised by the cover blurb, Vayne also writes about 'gardening', in a very informative essay on 'Permaculture, Politics and Paganism'. Another aspect of interacting magically with our environment is explored in pieces on psychogeography.

One of my favourite essays is ‘The Use of the Imagination’, in which he cleverly undoes the usual (and usually derogatory) notion that imagination is not real. For instance:
'The screen upon which we project our perceptions is imagination; it is the necessary condition of experience.'
The theme of imagination also impels a very rare feature of this book – a short 'Manifesto of the Magickians', a clarion call to engagement with the real world through the use of magick. A specific kind of engagement is suggested near the end of the chapter 'The Fourth Path – Drugs, Entheogens and modern Paganism', where readers are encouraged to support American Casey Hardison, imprisoned in the UK on a 20 year sentence for LSD manufacture.

Overall, this is a fine book, probably the best I've read of Vayne's work. The prose is highly readable and mostly clear, with one startlingly indigestible exception, when he writes: ' the baulked project of our inherent epistemophillia', perhaps after an overdose of Baudrillard.

However, I have to take issue with his curiously uncritical stereotype of the Left Hand Path magician, in which he sets up a straw-man-picture of Black Brothers, 'dwellers in the Abyss that wish to 'stop growing, to become rigid and unbending'', illustrating this with a quote from a Temple of Set website.
In order to make my point I shall explore some ideas about what the purpose and goal of the magical path might be.
The Perennial Philosophy has so far always been interpreted as having an endpoint in Union With God. Of the tiny minority who attempt the Great Work, many fail and few records exist. What has survived and gained the status of the canon of the Perennial Philosophy gives a self-selection that appears to offer a consistent picture of what attainment is like.
Some of this is gorgeously seductive – who would not be lured onto the path by Thomas Traherne’s:
'You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.'
I certainly was, and for years I worked a mixture of LHP and RHP. Now I know myself better, and having investigated RHP techniques far more closely, I confirmed in the process that I belong to a particular subset of seekers – those who are constitutionally unable to believe in Big God to the extent of ever having any faith in that abstraction. Such seekers as myself can only hope to develop faith in some transpersonal influence much nearer to hand.

Not only that – the closer I approach to what mystical attainment is supposed to be, the less I like the look of much of the territory sketched out in the reports, not to mention the methods of getting there.
For instance, I find sitting meditation itself a dubious practice, and am inclined to view with some reservations any interpretations of the sublime ecstasies that are proffered by someone who’s spent 2 hours a day doing nothing. Something in me not only detests sitting doing nothing for 2 hours a day but finds suspect any philosophy that emerges from such a practice.

I came to the firm conclusion that I do not seek union with God. The whole notion is dubious: Would you want to attain union with your lover? Because then you wouldn’t be able to love her/him any more and the world would have been diminished by one individual consciousness.
To put it another way, my Holy Guardian Angel is not a RHP mystic.

I strongly suspect there’s an inborn capacity to appreciate the concept of Big God. There is some vindication of this from studies on separated twins, particularly behavioural geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr's famous "Minnesota twins" study, from which he concludes that about 50% of the differences among people in their religious attitudes, interests, and values is accounted for by their genes.
This is a contentious idea (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_gene), but if it's anywhere near the truth it means that when we god-minus genotypes explore higher consciousness we either have to shoehorn ourselves into a Procrustean bed of mainstream theology or write our own god-minus esoteric manuals.

And this opens up the question: What happens to the Self in the LHP?
The Setians have a pretty good model. I find their Satanic glamours offputting, the kind of thing that initially made it hard for me to take them seriously, but their model fits rather well with the Northern mysteries model expounded by Edred Thorsson, in which we forever 'Seek the Mystery', approaching an infinite succession of veils, each of which parts to reveal another behind it.
I suggest to Mr V that he might try reading 'Uncle Setnakht's Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path'. Don Webb’s calm and lucid manual of LHP attainment gives the lie to the Black Brothers stereotype in many ways, including supplying reasons to help other people!  I can detect nothing more problematic in my reading of that book than a difference in personal style, and this is as it should be – each of us has to make our own way in these realms. 

In contrast to this, it strikes me that the most empty, frozen, in-the-fucking-way-type people are very Right Hand Path. Alternative-medical guru Deepak Chopra is a good example, with his sententious advice to just be nice, meditate (to crush your individuality), and hopefully make loads of money along the way, just like he did.

One description of what I'm doing now is working on ‘building a soul’. This Work is common to Setians, Rune-Gild and many followers of Jung, who call this process Individuation. And that is far from an exhaustive list – Vayne himself writes (p74 ): 'the occultist cultivates an enchanted soul.'
The higher levels of consciousness have been almost all articulated by RHP for a long time (and will continue to be so, because it’s the easier path to understand in our strangely-warped world, where abstract notions so often trump living reality), but magicians like Webb and Thorsson are drawing together the threads of a Left Hand Path gnosis that shine (darkly) through the weave of the Perennial Philosophy.