Tuesday, 10 December 2019

John Higgs - The Future Starts Here - Adventures in the 21st Century

John Higgs's other books are enjoyable, well written and sometimes downright inspiring, which is why I decided to buy this one. From the things people were saying, I was also led to think: This is going to be a feelgood book, like that newsletter 'Future Crunch', wherein you get the good news about the world to counteract the learned helplessness generated by the mainstream news. This generated a bit of resistance in me before I even read it; I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a miserabilist, but sometimes the statements people make to cheer us up are so poorly-researched or downright shallow that they can have the opposite effect.

But I was mistaken. It's nothing like as simple as that.

Yes, it's a book full of good information about the world today. But it has a larger purpose - to expose the endemic scourge of nihilism in the cultural mainstream. He traces 20th century optimism about the future and how it died in the 1980s, using a lot of examples and building a very convincing case. In his opposition to this trend, he's not advocating blinkered optimism, but 'pragmatic optimism' - looking the future 'in the eye, to truly understand the problems ahead and then adopt an optimistic approach regardless.'

It's no wonder Mr Higgs has been known to quote Salena Godden's superb catchphrase 'pessimism is for lightweights.' Here he is:

He tells us the media have been indulging in a kind of conspiracy of despair; this is not so incredible when you see an (apparently) deeply-pessimistic book such as Human Compatible by Stuart Russell reviewed in the Guardian and The Future Starts Here is not even mentioned in the review as a counterbalance to such thinking.

The book has 9 sections, amongst which are lengthy refutations of commonly-held fear-ideas. One is that AI is not coming for your job. This is a delightfully underwhelmed deconstruction of the myths about AI; for a start, AI is really not very good. Even in the case of facial recognition software, which has had a lot of money pumped into it for obvious reasons, we get truly pathetic levels of performance:

'South Wales Police experimented with facial-recognition software ... and from May 2017 to March 2018 the technology flagged up 2,685 individuals as people of interest. 2,451 of these proved to be false alarms. In London, the facial-recognition system used by the Metropolitan Police only correctly identified two people, according to information released under Freedom of Information laws in May 2018. Neither of these people was a criminal and no arrests were made.'

Chapter 4, 'The Metamodern Generation', starts off by asserting the differentness of the various post-WW2 generations, using the common definitions of Boomer, Gen X, Millennials (defined as those who came to adolescence around 2000) and Post-Millennials, known as Gen ZZZ by some unkind folk.

The start of that chapter was challenging for me: a tale of law students who were refusing to study rape law and wanted the word 'violate' expunged from their law books. Surely it's not just me, being an old-fart Boomer, who finds this obscenely stupid, and deeply antithetical to anything that can be dignified with the term 'education'?

But if it pushes my buttons to that extent, there has to be more to it than that. Remember, whatever generation you're from, the student politicos? Ambitious individuals who take some issue and whip up support to launch themselves on a political career? This idiocy sounds like the Gen Z version of that kind of social predator, taking some issue that is already in social media and driving it to ludicrous extremes, because basically no-one else will, so it provides a USP for that politico, a handhold on the slippery slope of political mendacity. The people who drive such things will, I imagine, be doing something much nastier in ten years' time.

So that was how I found some way not to condemn a whole generation because of its more idiotic excesses. However, the very fact that such balderdash can exist at all does make me ask what is wrong with Gen Z. And Higgs does a good job of redeeming Gen Z; this is a generation whose values lean strongly towards service. Their hyper-sensitivity may be the main driver behind their commitment to global issues such as Extinction Rebellion, and if the future needs anything, it's people who are driven to serve, to oppose rather than abjectly accept the cynicism of the cultural mainstream.

I ended that chapter feeling decidedly more optimistic about the future; it's in the hands of people who actually care, whose idiocies will fade into history, while they work to preserve and reform the human world.

In that chapter, Higgs introduces us to metamodernism as the philosophy that is replacing postmodernism. We can all breathe a deep sigh of relief at that - the corpse of PoMo has been stinking the place out for a while now. We can now move on from that pretentious anti-science nonsense and the misuse of the word 'problematic' as a noun.

The etymology of metamodernism is encouraging; it's not from 'meta' as in 'overview', but 'from the Greek word metaxy. Plato defined metaxy as being between two contrasting poles. ... The way that post-Millennials can oscillate between being childlike and sensible, or being conservative and liberal, is a ... contemporary example of metaxy'
He quotes one Luke Turner: 'it is important to oscillate between opposing poles rather than choosing one and identifying with it ... the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.'

Astonishingly, this is pretty much the 'Polarian method' as defined by Edred Thorsson in his description of the path of Odin and those who would emulate him. Thorsson writes:
'It is in the eternal ebb and flow, in the dynamic process - unending and without end - that the ultimate synthesis is found - not in a state of being. This is the essence of what I call the "Polarian Method".'

I can't see how we could have got from Thorsson's words to those of Turner, but these interesting times make for strange bedfellows, and in such an exoteric context, Polarian thinking is an excellent antidote to rigid, dogmatic positions.

Higgs does a nice job of trashing social media. Apparently, Zuckerberg at age 19 referred to the first few thousand member of his fledgling Facebook as 'dumb fucks'' for trusting him. Now, we are seeing an exodus from FB, especially among younger users.
About this, Higgs writes: 'The way the platform can be used to trigger negative emotions works as a powerful addictive drug on the Baby Boomer generation, yet this repels the young.'
I'm warming even more to Generation Z!

In the penultimate chapter, 'Fixing Things', the author confronts climate gloom and rejects such positions as the Dark Mountain Project. Some years back, I read a good deal of their stuff and it struck me as, ultimately, selfish and whiney. Saying there is nothing that can be done and that everything is fucked and all we can do is huddle together and weep collectively is not a good way forward on any level as far as I'm concerned. Higgs sees this attitude as a facet of the Gen X tendency to nihilism, which he addresses in the earlier chapter about generational differences. 'Once you adopt that position you no longer need to worry, or keep thinking about the problem, or look for solutions. Giving up is seductively easy, especially as you get older.' There is always reason to doubt, and never a time to give up hope. Higgs sees Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth's hopelessness as a yearning for an impossible golden age of humans living in a perfect harmony with pristine wilderness. As Higgs puts it, 'Giving up eventually becomes inevitable when what you seek can never be found.' We just have to live with the mess and make the best of it we can. Which will be a lot better than abandoning all effort.

In the final chapter, 'More Than Individual', Higgs muses on where the mainstream's culture of individualism has got us. He quotes Chris Bateman on how, 'once you have cut the ties that were unique to you, you become adrift in the same mass-culture corporate networks as everybody else... Pursuing individuality in this way results in becoming, essentially, the same as everybody else. The background and relationships that were discarded turn out to be the very things that would have made you a distinctive, unique individual.'

This seems obvious to me, but then again I've been involved for years in magical currents some of which articulate 'radical traditionalist' positions. The radical traditionalist argues for small against large, for family and 'organic' community as against corporate and state methods of organizing society. Sadly, the 'organic' bit in 'organic community' is often interpreted along racist lines, ruining the whole argument as far as I'm concerned; who wants to be stuck in a village with a tiny gene pool run by people who hate anyone who is different from them? So it is refreshing to find that the basic idea of the strength of family and local community against the corporate state is gaining currency without the shameful idiocy of racism. 

His parting shot is at the recent rise of the populist ultra-right, as 'the twentieth-century world view lashing out and trying to save itself from coming change ... like Canute ordering back the waves.' Let's hope he's right.

One bit of astonishingly good news that I was surprised not to find in this book is about the best projections we now have on the growth of world population. The old projections were based purely on what had gone before, with no accounting for new variables. Those projections leave us with a version of the future with nothing but overcrowded cities, starving people and no wildlife; it's hard to avoid very bad dystopias when thinking about such a relentless march of overpopulation. However, some clever researcher a few years ago worked out that the biggest factor in reducing birth rates is the education of women: the more educated women you get, the fewer children they have. Projecting the curve with this variable increasing realistically, we get a population which peaks over the next century then starts declining*. Without that effect, there would be little cause for hope.

Reading this book was quite a ride for me, as you may have noticed. It changed a few of my ideas for the better, particularly about the generation in whose hands we are leaving the planet. It's a gripping read, and possibly his best book to date. Buy it, especially if you are over 30. In fact, it should be compulsory reading for anyone in that age group. 

(*See for instance https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/27/what-goes-up-population-crisis-wrong-fertility-rates-decline)

Monday, 25 November 2019

Would You Know Yet More? The Runa Interviews with Edred Thorsson

Edited by Ian Read and Michael Moynihan

This is one of many books that feature the words of Edred Thorsson, but it is the only one which involve an interviewer. The book consists mostly of the interviews conducted by Ian Read for his Rûna magazine, which ran from 1997 to 2009, plus a 2019 interview done by Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan.

Ian Read supplies a foreword, and the text is nicely organized according to the themes of the questions, so it's possible to follow an idea through the relevant chapter. The themes include:
- The Rune-Gild, Cosmology and the Gods, Monotheism and modernity;
- Asatru and the neopagan revival;
- The Woodharrow Institute;
- The Goths;
- J R R Tolkien, the Spear of Destiny and the Modern Mythos;
- Tradition and Modernity;
- Towards the Birth of an Odian Philosophy: Hans Naumann and Nietzsche's Ewige Wiederkunft.

There's a lot of high-powered ideas in here. I'll just pick a favourite. In the piece on Nietzsche and Odian philosophy, Thorsson makes a very interesting point about the history of thought:
'At present, our chief task in the development of a true philosophy rooted in timeless Germanic principles lies in the translation of mythic thought into theoretical thought. ... The process ... here is identical  to what happened in India, where mythic patterns encoded in the Rig Veda were used as sources for the theoretical concepts expressed in the Upanishads... A similar process took place in Greece, where Homeric myth became a springboard for the theoretical speculations of the Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers.'
This possibility in Germanic thought was 'blocked by the onrush of Christian theology...', so that this process is only now being resumed.

In the same piece, writing on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return and how it can relate to the traditional Germanic idea of aptrborinn, of being born again within the clan, it becomes clear that we are not being reborn in order to be perfected. We do 'not look for far-off unknown blessings ... but rather we should live in the way that we want to live once again, and as we want to live for all eternity!'

Buy this book for what its title promises - as close as you'll get to the thoughts of the most influential contemporary teacher of the Germanic esoteric reawakening.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Welcome to Paradise! and... Westworld? and Midsommar? Ozora Festival

It's evening, and very warm at Budapest airport. We get on the minibus shuttle - it's for Ozora Artists. Here's I'm an artist - I'm going to speak on 'Psychedelics and Magical Energy' at this gigantic psytrance festival.

I have to admit my previous exposure to psytrance - two parties in the late 1990s/early noughties -was not encouraging. Naively, I was expecting 'psytrance' to mean 'psychedelic trance', but no-one was interested in psychedelics at all, only in pills and coke and squabbling over nitrous oxide hits. So I hesitated when I was invited to speak at Ozora, but not for long, because it did sound like something better than that. And it was.

I meditate on the long, winding drive, and it's exceptional. I'm in a bliss of trusting to a guidance that took me through each moment of experience, a silent knowing that was there in some of my teenage acid experiences but which I'd mostly lost since. I feel as though I've come home.

The festival has a giant entrance sign, welcoming us to paradise, and then an orange drive-through pavilion as the entrance. We get our wristbands and artist's lanyards and queue up for some chips. The festival at this stage is darkness and sound and confusion. We meet a friend, drink a beer and get another lift. The car is struggling with the hills, I'm beginning to wonder if we will be stranded in the middle of the night, but we arrive at our apartment in a village, Kisszekely, about 15 km from the site. I learn one Magyar word - koszi, thanks.

We breeze into our apartment some time past midnight, talking as we decompress from our journey, unaware that we were waking up flatmate Ayana Iyi, who's also talking at Ozora, on psychedelic witchcraft.

The next day it's hot. I'm beginning to wonder whether it was a good idea to opt for the off-site apartment, it being so far from the site, but it's no problem - the Ozora staff are happy to give us lifts to and fro at any time of day or night. I've never had such great treatment from organizers. This is the day of my presentation, so we make our way to Chambok House, where the talks and discussions take place.

My talk seems to go down well. I'd no idea how many people to expect or what level of interest; I'm guessing 50, but it's nearer 200, and people are enthusiastic enough to get up and do some energy work. People reported amazing states of consciousness and one person got healed. The next day, a participant came up to me and told me how she'd used a chi-ball energy portal to find the man she'd been looking for. All in all, one of the best audiences I've ever had.

Now we've got a chance to explore the site properly. Catching sight of the timeless traditional architecture of the Artibarn, I'm suddenly in the film Midsommar, in that beautiful reconstruction of an ancient heathen village (before they start offing people).

After music, art is the big thing in this festival. The land is owned by a rich Hungarian chap who loves the psytrance scene and many of the structures are permanent. Art events are on all the time. Walking across a field, we hear what sounds a bit like a warm-up for the Anvil Chorus from Das Rheingold - it's some people improvising around the sound of hammer and anvil.

The Mirador art gallery is a tower, filled with a stunning display of psychedelic art, so good we get overloaded and have to pause our viewing for a day.

Climbing the tower gives fantastic views all round the site.

And right in front of it is a Cat Temple.

Then we get the biggest visual shock of all. From the Mirador tower we have a vague sense of the main stage field behind the trees, downhill. So we start down some wooden steps that drop about 200 feet between platforms. As we emerge from the trees onto the first platform, we finally see the main stage field and gasp at the sheer scale of it. Judy says, 'It's like Westworld!'

Later I'm back at Chambok House for the panel discussion, alongside Kilindi Iyi, Dany Nemu and Ferdinando Buscema, discussing 'Magical Psychonauts: Intersections of Magic and Psychedelics'. The room was packed, and the questions were interesting. Magic, or at least the possibility of it in people's minds, is thriving in this subculture.

The next day it's really hot. Dancers walk round with those 5 litre garden sprays you pump up then release a fine mist. It's very pleasant for us, probably essential for people dancing in the 29*C sunshine. This is a scene where people look after their health and each other's. There's plenty of nice vegan food, no need to eat meat-industry waste disguised as burgers. We drink beer, for the heat, but not very much. There is almost no drunkenness on the site. I see one bloke staggering down the hill shouting and waving a bottle, but he is conspicuous by his rarity. We don't see any of those lairy packs of lads, pissed and coked-up, that infest most public gatherings.

In the evening we go to one of the smaller stages where the most interesting music is on to watch Tentacles of Static, an Ozric Tentacles reincarnation. They're great, playing against the spectacular backdrop of a thunderstorm which at first we think is a light show and distant sounds. The rain comes down thick and heavy. We just have to walk through it to our lift for the night, soaked to the skin. Back at the apartment, we chat and smoke with Xenia our driver and Alana.

The next day we check out the Dome. In the daytime it looks a bit like a gigantic WW1 German helmet with its low curving brim and spike on top, all made of thatch. By night, it's lit up with the most incredible lights inside and out.

As we walk in, we're hit by a gust of air laden with the unmistakeable tree-resin-and-petrol aroma of acacia DMT. People are lying in hammocks, in this loud, immersive chillout music, watching projections on the ceiling. We have arrived in the final realisation of Wagner's dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk - the total artwork, total immersion in artistic vision.

For Friday the forecast says thunderstorms, and they're not kidding. We're trapped in the bar for the first part of the day, while the rain buckets down and puddles become ponds. Since that experience on the minibus on Monday, it's easy to meditate with eyes open, switching into silence and eternity. A stylish couple sits behind me. She looks like a Japanese aristocrat; his face is Samurai, from an old print.

We check out the Ozorian Prophet, a daily print newspaper with news and interviews with people on site. It's a jolly publication, a bunch of good vibes, but a bit deluded in places - one of the articles has someone claiming there's no single-use plastics in the food area, someone who clearly has never had to use any of the bins on the site.

Eventually the rain recedes enough to escape the bar and wander. We see people building flood barriers and cutting drainage ditches. A truck appears and dumps sand on a major route. This site is being really well looked after. I get the impression that the organizers are actually spending a lot of the income on keeping the place nice. It's cheaper than Glastonbury for 6 full days, and much better managed.

We're back at Chambok House for a panel discussion on psytrance. I find myself agreeing with the  Australian DJ who says psytrance is too repetitious, a 'rectilinear steel prison.' The American DJ defends it, saying the insistent 'machine-gun beat', was essential to keep the trance going, or you get broken out of the trance. The repetition is a 'a warm blanket, a comforting thing.' It's clear that we are talking here about an actual technology for getting higher, based on the relentless monobeat. I mean, whatever floats your boat, but it's not my thing, that repetition. I prefer shifting, swirling rhythms that take you off in new directions, exactly the kind of thing that the Australian guy is saying are now 'transgressive' and 'forbidden' in the psytrance world.

Later, we take in a set by Youth with Gaudi on the small Dragon's Den stage, exactly the kind of 'transgressive' beats we were talking about this afternoon. This music has delighted in techno, dub, trance and drum-and-bass, and folded them all together into complex, shifting rhythms that are a joy to dance to. It begins to occur to me that the best way to understand the psytrance scene is that it's a church. Its sacrament is the 'warm blanket' of the monobeat and its limiting of the wildness of psychedelics, the collective ecstasy is signalled by people raising their hands at the climaxes of the music, its creed is caring and inclusive (insofar as any church can be inclusive) and its faith is that its beliefs are better for the world than the dominant ones out there. Which seems perfectly reasonable.

It's the final full day on Saturday. We've enjoyed some intense conversations in the car as we were ferried back and forth, on topics such as small-scale farming, the history of the region, working as a translator of Russian for the Hungarian government, children and psychedelics, and yoni balls. Today is much cooler, and I'm enjoying a major sacrament, so I'm doing fire breathing all day. I discover that each breath is a recapitulation of cosmology. That's maybe a story for some other time.

On Sunday it's time to go home. We wait in the Artists' Camp for the airport shuttle. I give my lighter and my last two joints to the man behind the transport desk, and he's delighted.

I never did well with churches, and psytrance dancing is too High Church for me - too prescriptive in its approach to gnosis. However, it was nice to worship with this congregation for a while; on the Saturday I danced to Youth's 'History of Trance' set, and I got the psytrance gnosis. And it's a nice congregation. Humans do religion; this is one of the better ones.

Ozora festival was much, much more than psytrance, and far better than I imagined. It was, in the end, one of the best festivals I've ever been to. Big thanks to everyone who made us so welcome, and to Giorgia for inviting me in the first place.


Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Thug, Two Tales in Poésie Noire, by David Jonathan Jones


I was ready when the parcel fell through the door. It came with a bullet-hole in the wrapper. I opened it. The hole was on the front cover, just below and to the right of the head of a shadow. The shadow that mostly fills the rain-glossed pavement of the darkened street. Stalking prey in the urban night, the shadow looks down... The background is the bleak existentialism of New York cop noir, with its jazz, its hard liquor and harder drugs, its seedy clubs where the opportunity for deadly violence is ever-present. So elegantly. With so much fucking style.

The car, radio
Night voices and soft bebop,
A blood requiem

And this world is invaded by an ancient goddess and her cult of sacred murder.

Skin, luminous dark,
Axe like nothing of this world,
Those still, ancient eyes.

Like nothing I'd seen,
Exotic beyond foreign,
Even in this hell.

I've never read anything remotely like Thug. This is meticulously-constructed epic poetry for a very unheroic age, built from Anglicized haiku, seventeen beats over three lines, forming a rhythm of cool, merciless witnessing.

The companion piece in here is The Gullveig Working, a deep, deep dive into desire and addiction, laced with the language of psychogeography as the protagonist scours the streets for glinting pieces to feed his gold-lust. If you were at Festival 23 in 2016 you may remember David's performance, done with George Rogers' haunting music.

As you pan on and on
On the cities' hidden tracks of fuck and fight,
For the cursed Rhinegeld, you Alberich, you Uber-prick,
Mired in the midden
Of others' loss, bad luck and tough fucking shit.
She is in that glint.
Like the shooting star flash
Of gusset in the cross of legs

Gullveig, or Goldie, becomes the very Goddess of hopeless desire, leading the seeker into gleaming gutters of détourned culture, deep mythological learning displayed lightly, Odin mashed up with William Burroughs, Elvis with Edgar Allen Poe. And we are all Her slaves, never to find fulfilment:

That broad in the red velvet dress
Is elusive beyond Elysian
And I'll claw my way through concrete
For a hint of a whisper of a rumour
Of her perfume
In a room she thought about going into
Once a thousand lifetimes back
When I was still hint and dust and starlight.

If you like these excerpts, if you like this poésie noire, buy this and take the ride. You won't regret it.

Monday, 15 July 2019

History of the Rune-Gild. The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, by Edred Thorsson - Review


A version of this book was first published in 2007 but this volume is really quite a new thing. A lot has happened since then. This volume is still principally a history of Edred Thorsson's own re-creation and involvement with the Gild, as should be the case, but it also honours those who have contributed to the Rune-Gild in the last few decades, including myself, by way of declaring an interest.

This is 'volume 3 of a much larger project', which will start with a history of the Rune-Gild in ancient times and continue via the Rune-Masters of the late mediaeval and early modern period. Also, as evidenced by the substantial changes in this over the 2007 edition, it is not a final version but an 'ongoing chronicle'.

Few esoteric organizations have as much interest in chronicling their own history. I am one of nature's archivists, so I like this. I think it's important that groups of people involved in initiatory endeavours reflect on what has happened so far, as a resource for new people who come along.

The cover starts the book off well, showing a rune-stone carved and raised by P. D. Brown, one of the world's foremost rune-carvers and a Master in the Rune-Gild. The beauty of this modern interpretation of an ancient Germanic aesthetic is plain to see, and demonstrates how successfully some artists have internalised those ancient patterns.

Edred writes about his personal history, the beginnings of his runic work, his involvement in the worlds of publishing and academia, his re-creation of the Rune-Gild and his part in organizations that Thorsson also had a big part in creating or nurturing, including The (Ring of) Troth.

What is the Rune-Gild about? Edred disposes of the notion that it's somewhere we go simply to learn runic sorcery (though you won't find anywhere better for doing so!) Rather, the Gild is an organization whose purpose is to revive Germanic esoteric culture in a context of radical traditionalism, a wider transformation of culture along traditional lines.

Edred talks us through his involvement with the 'dark side' which phrase is an actual chapter heading. The chapter is a detailed account of what went on between him and the Temple of Set and Michael Aquino, so part of its function is to set the record straight.

This is a magical biography. Some of the events that glimmer in the Rhine of this book are parts of a process of illumination. As with anyone whose life has been rich in magical work, personal history can be broken down into a number of stages which may, in the hands of a subtle enough writer, amount to articulations of the initiation process. The book can be read as a memoir of initiation experiences that, in Midgard, were developments in the Rune-Gild.

One of the most interesting features of this layer of the book is Edred's discussion of the 'higher man', a meeting with whom is necessary for initiation in all proper traditions. The aspirant sees living, breathing evidence in another person of the effects of initiation, and this forms a vital stage of realisation.

The book is beautifully produced and includes a number of photos which bring the narrative to life. If you're a Gild member, if you've ever wondered about the Rune-Gild, if you're interested in modern magical history, or if you want to read a well-written account of a magical life, buy this book.

Monday, 1 July 2019

'The Private Unmentionable Gargoyle and Other Stories' by Hubert Tsarko

The Private Unmentionable Gargoyle and Other Stories by Hubert Tsarko (Publish & Print. Pontypridd, Dave Lewis 2018) https://amzn.to/2CxQVbU

This is Hubert Tsarko's first collection of short stories, consisting of tales from the early 1980s and later set in rural France, Greece and Spain.

The first story sets the scene. It's told in first person, with the author leaving his bedsit in Leeds for France in 1980, somewhat down with his life and wanting something new. He is already commenting about how travelling changed him when - 'with so much exposure to the real world my personality was changing and I was now less inclined to do what people told me.'

Hubert, aka John and I go back to the Leeds magical scene in the late 1970s, and I travelled with him for just one summer, in 1982. He is better known as a poet, but he has also been writing short stories for as long as I've known him. He writes engagingly of that first homesickness, that lonely, uncomfortable feeling. The loss of his sleeping bag right at the start of a journey, the criminal drivers who pick you up only to steal from you, or share their spoils with you, unwitting psychopomps extracting an entrance fee to Europe's underworld. This is the familiar emotional territory of leaving one life behind and beginning another.

The stories then mostly move into third person, giving a bit more distance and introducing all those themes of la vie routière with its drinking, its loves and its bizarre friendships born out of the economic necessities of following the next job.

The distress that often accompanies this lifestyle is suppressed by booze and rears up in hangovers in which the abyss yawns: 'When he woke up on the dusty mattress he felt like shit, his faculties clouded by a sense of abstract doom.' ("To The South")

What is this vagabond lifestyle all about? 'Interesting experiences', adventures that range from sleeping under a tree after a lunchtime on free wine to helping with a failed bank robbery in "The Madman of Mancau": 'Don't worry,' he repeated. 'There's no big deal about a bank robbery in these parts.'

Part of the drive is a search for an authentic identity:
'I was a language teacher,' I said, 'but I gave it up.'
'So now you rough it like this.'
'Now I don't have to put on an act.'

And what we all do, one way or another, try to pretend we are eternally young. But it catches up with us: 'one season older and nothing to show.' So the traveller periodically seeks more order, but falls back into chaos.

The instability of the travelling life sabotages any attempt to find love that's more than a two-night stand. In some ways, these stories of migrant workers from the 1980s, an era that seems so distant now, foreshadow the world of gig economies and mass migration that the present generation is growing up with.

These tales are very well-written, with a vulnerability and occasional dark humour, a solid descriptive groundedness on which the author builds poignant reflections about life. Hubert has got a great ear for language, with well-judged inclusions of foreign words - Greek, French, Spanish and Romanian - that add nuance without obscuring anything.

Some of these tales I've read before, but this is the sort of writing that gets better the more you read it. Is it the case that nothing much happens in these stories? No - it's life happening, often with no discernable plot. The stories belong in a collection - they have more power taken all together. This collection contains the questions distilled from half of a man's life, the unanswered ones building up like silt as the incidents come and go and the years wear on.

If you want to read about a lifestyle that is gone and yet, like I said above, still very relevant today, if you want to read what it is like to seek freedom and authenticity with all the risks and regrets that entails, if you want to read writing that is clear and memorable, buy this book.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Operation Mindfuck: Are the Discordians To Blame For It All?

Last November at Occulture Berlin I gave a talk, the video of it is here. The sound is a bit quiet and there are no pictures after a bit, so here is the text.

Hail Eris!
All Hail Discordia!

Some of you will have come across that call and response. What's it about? Where and when did all that stuff start? What has it got to do with magic, or the present state of the world? And what has it got to do with our intimations of immortality? These questions are what this talk is about.

Imagine, for a moment, it's around 1960, and some artists who are perhaps beginning to realise themselves as magicians start a prank. The prank results in millions of people waking up to the malleable nature of consensus reality, how it is shaped by desire and news and illusions. These people start using this insight to feed into their own practices, of magic and other things that aren't called magic but have a lot in common. These people grow a subculture of magic that you can get behind in this era, ruled as it is of course is by materialist scientism. Here is a scheme of thinking in which you hold beliefs lightly, as tools to experience life more richly, more magically, as opposed to getting trapped in them. It's liberating, it provides the nearest thing to a postmodern take on spiritual tradition. And it makes life more fun. Much more fun.

Now further imagine, decades downstream in the flow of history, that this fluid vision of belief and reality becomes a part of the mainstream culture. To the extent that the techniques for changing reality by re-scripting it internally become perverted into political weapons, so that we have leaders who subscribe to evidence-free crank ideas, who confidently deny today, things they said just yesterday, and the whole thing is orchestrated by a kind of if-you're-not-with-me-you're-against-me warzone called social media.

Sound familiar?

So, how did it all start? Those people back in about 1960 taking the piss out of consensus reality...

This is a tangled history with some improbable synchronicities built into it, so a good place to start is with Robert Anton Wilson, because he connects up so many of the threads.

In the wake of the Kennedy assassination and the US government's absurdly clumsy rewrite of those events in something called the Warren Commission Report, which played fast and loose with the laws of ballistics, amongst other things, there was a boom in conspiracy theories. They became a sort of folk theology - we no longer have God to blame for the state of the world, so how could such thing happen? and then get covered up so thoroughly, but not thoroughly enough? Wilson and his fellow Playboy editor Bob Shea got involved in something called Operation Mindfuck. They would encourage the daftest conspiracy theories, even supplying wacky letters for their own column then commenting on them. The idea of OM was to spoof conspiracy theory and expose its absurdity. Look at it this way: You read some apparently wacko take on world events, then you realise that some people are discussing it as a serious proposition. You might conclude a) that other people are crazy or maybe b) that we all live in different worlds. So this project has a deeper purpose - to destabilize people's automatic acceptance of the authority of news. What might these days be called 'reality hacking'.

OM (ooooooommmmmm!) was the product of a worldview called Discordianism, which can be seen as a spoof on religion or a spoof religion, centred round Eris, Greek goddess of Chaos and Discord.

A few weeks ago, I was in Pelion, in northwest Greece. I did a little pilgrimage to the area where Eris was said to have appeared at the marriage of the sea-nymph Thetis and the hero Peleus. The marriage took place outside the cave of Chiron the centaur.

I imagine most of you will have heard the story of Eris, but it is worth covering in outline.
The Olympian deities are invited to a slap-up wedding, in a beautiful place. And Eris is not invited - she has a reputation as a troublemaker. Perhaps understandably - her children are called things like 'Battles', 'War', 'Starvation' and 'Forgetfulness.' The wedding is a forced one - Thetis is more a rape victim than a willing trophy-bride of the arrogant hero, so there is cause for trouble from the start.
So of course Eris turns up anyway, and to sow strife, the meaning of her name, tosses into the party a golden apple inscribed with the phrase te kalliste, to the prettiest. 
All three Olympian Goddesses claim it. A judge is appointed: the mortal Paris, Prince of Troy. The Goddesses strip naked, bathe in a sacred spring and offer him their gifts: Athena offers him wisdom, Hera political power and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. Who is already married. Now any of you who has heard of the Trojan War can see where this is heading: Paris chooses Aphrodite, and the world is never the same again.

So the founders of Discordianism decided that Our Lady of Chaos was the true mistress of reality, the most believable-in deity for a world whose chaos was becoming more visible year by media-enhanced year.

The Ur-text of Discordianism, first released in 1963, was Principia Discordia, Or How I Found Goddess and What I Did To Her When I Found Her, by Malaclypse the Younger (Greg Weddell) and Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenshurst (Kerry Thornley).
It brought a disrespectful scepticism to matters of religion and philosophy. This is a playful approach to belief. It provided the spirit, though not yet the worked-out details, for the multi-model approach to belief that Wilson is most famous for.

Many of the ideas and characters in the Principia were dramatized and developed in fictional form in the novel Illuminatus!, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (2). Illuminatus! was the first novel I read which explicitly depicted magic actually happening in a believable world, not as a fantasy in some world where magic is much more common, like Discworld or Hogwarts or any of the fabled lands of sword and sorcery. Here was magic leaking into the real world! Here was a narrative which tempted us to consider that magic might actually be real, and I took the bait, allowing myself to believe just that, for the first time in my adult life.
Illuminatus! achieved this literary trick by using multiple viewpoints within the same character - a person may think in magical terms, then switch to physics or police procedure - foreshadowing Wilson's explicit adoption of what he called multi-model agnosticism (MMA) in books such as Cosmic Trigger).

Wilson said of the book: " Cosmic Trigger deals with a process of deliberately induced brain change ... This is called 'initiation' or 'vision quest' in many traditional societies and ... [a] dangerous variety of self-psychotherapy in modern terminology. I do not recommend it for everybody ... The main thing 1 learned is that 'reality' is always plural and mutable."

MMA is a perspective which owes a lot to the psychedelic gnosis. In Wilson's case, it also owes a lot to a series of experiences he referred to as Chapel Perilous, in which his naïve beliefs about the world were challenged to the point of collapse by events he experienced. This point is of course closely related to what Wilson and his friends were doing with OM; we will return to that later. These events, which he writes about in Cosmic Trigger, his record of Chapel Perilous, include a day-after-peyote appearance in a neighbouring property of 'a man with warty green skin and pointy ears, dancing'. Wilson comments: 'Unlike the rapid metaprogramming during a peyote trip, in which you are never sure what is "real" and what is just the metaprogrammer playing games, this experience had all the qualities of waking reality, and differed only in intensity. The entity in the cornfield had been more beautiful, more charismatic, more divine than anything I could consciously imagine when using my literary talents to try to portray a deity.' Five years later, in 1968, 'the Skeptic', as he called himself in this mode of thinking, read Carlos Castaneda and first heard of Mescalito, 'the spirit of the peyote plant', which he had encountered five years before.

After numerous such epistemological crises, he starts to get the point:
'It became clear as vodka that whatever "reality" means philosophically, our everyday experience (the common-sense definition of "reality") is almost entirely self-programmed. This cinematic editing occurs so rapidly that we are normally not aware of doing it; thus we add many things that aren't there at all'

After this, he did some Aleister Crowley exercises and succeeded in contacting 'mysterious entities' without psychedelics. He also experienced loads of synchronicities involving the number 23. Then there was his invisibility while meditating, and his daughter appearing to instantaneously translocate or levitate, and the fact that, although he didn't believe in reincarnation, he got reincarnation memories which he found useful. More than once in his Chapel Perilous period he did wonder if he was going crazy, but at a certain point, 'the Shaman and the Skeptic conferred at length', decided a) he was not going mad and b) to continue with magical experiments. Factor in a few extraordinarily accurate and up-to-the-moment tarot readings and intuitive astrological sun-sign estimations and we have a dead Skeptic.

Except on Mondays. In Cosmic Trigger he refers to himself by several role-names: he is the Scientist, the Shaman, the Sorcerer, Writer of Satire, Materialist, Reporter, etc etc. After his Chapel Perilous period, he came to accept that the only authentic way to do justice to every aspect of our experience - especially when we add in the warp drive of psychedelics - is to adopt different models for different situations. The right model is the one that enables you to make to most sense out of any given set of phenomena. When we reject magic out of culturally-ingrained prejudice, we impoverish our reality. Without needing to.
We will return to this.

Wilson's Multi-model agnosticism is a practice of not holding on to any belief, but instead, of treating each belief as a tool or a gateway to a particular reality, or world, or class of experience. Any perspective we have on the world is bound to be part of a massive, inclusive gestalt, a whole package or bundle of beliefs about the world that come as a complete nested set, every belief implying every other and the whole lot acting as an epistemological and ontological gravity-well that sucks you back again and again into conformity with that set of beliefs. These sets of world-describing (or world-creating) beliefs are known as reality tunnels. Once we recognize that we are in a particular reality tunnel which limits everything we can think - for instance Catholicism, Buddhism or Atheist Scientism  - we are then free to shift to another.

This is an essential skill for any magician to master who values their mental health in this age. Applied to magic, multi-model thinking went way beyond what the post-Crowley current called Thelema was doing with belief. It was radical, in the genuine sense, of looking right into the roots of magical technique. It was the approach that became Chaos Magic.

Operation Mindfuck never ended. One interesting and grotesque feature of the present world is the creepy notion of 'post-truth', which means that people feel free to believe any nonsense and lies they choose, all that matters is that their belief make them feel good. So overwhelming evidence (such as that for human-made climate change) is denied, because feelings are more important.

This situation owes a lot to OM, that scheme from over half a century ago. In the process of lampooning conspiracy theories, OM also played with the idea that no source of news is reliable. Over the decades, it seems as if reality has been destabilized; the idea of a reality in which most people share has been eaten away until it is mostly holes. Maybe we magical thinkers succeeded in breaking down the monolithic old reality-principle, turning 'reality' into silly putty. As a result, it is perhaps easier, at least in certain public areas of life, for me and you to do magic. And by the same token, it is also easier for the creepy 'post-truth' brigade to get away with doing their magic. 

So did the Discordians, the promulgators of this conspiracy, OM, turn reality to mush? Are they to blame for the state of the world?

Or did they simply reveal it as such? Did they reveal what reality is really like? Revelation of higher truth is the meaning of the word 'apocalypse.' The outer apocalypse that always seems to be hiding just behind the face of the news must be seen as a symbol of the true inner apocalypse, the point whereafter you can no longer hang on to your old, received models of the world. R A Wilson's Chapel Perilous. The various stages of dissolution of belief glyphed by the crises in systems of initiation - some call it the Abyss.

Before OM, we suffered from the illusion that we were all living in the same world. This might have helped us get along a bit better, but it compromised our individual experiences of life. Since OM, we suffer from the illusion that we all belong to tiny, increasingly-tightly-defined subsets of humanity. We curate our media feeds to forestall any disharmony with our personal reality tunnel, our comfort zone.
Before OM, we were a mass, controlled by uniformity of belief. Now we are fragmented, and easily exploited because of our fragmentation.

But in the inner apocalypse, in Chapel Perilous, we stand a chance of recovering our cosmic birthright.
And what is that birthright?

        "...disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business...." 
- Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

The idea of belief itself as a magical technique is Chaos Magic's technical USP. In magic, we choose a belief or, more often, a nested set of beliefs, that makes the result we want possible or, when the magic succeeds, inevitable.

The technology of Belief is of course a child of MMA, or even a facet of it. What's more, magicians need some degree of MMA even to get started in doing magic. Let's face it, magic is an undertaking that is right out on the fringe, where the DSM, the Bible of psychiatry, tells us we are nuts even to entertain notions so far outside the mainstream. In deciding you are a magician, you have already used the power of belief in a way very few people do. When you do a ritual, you are engaging in a piece of theatre designed to shift your reality out of the mundane and facilitate your magic. When you are in your temple / sacred grove you are engaging in the nested beliefs a) that you are a magician, b) that tonight you are a Qabalistic / Celtic magician and c) whatever specific belief shift will enable the spell to work. (And maybe a couple more, just for fun!)

So what are we doing these magical operations for? In the early days of Chaos Magic, it was all just so-called results magic or sorcery. But that alone, the repeated fulfilment of the needs of the body and the emotions, isn't going to get us where we need to go in this world. Rather, we need a sense of ourselves that stands at a deeper level than all the mess we see around us. 

Early Chaos Magic ideas were not up to this task. In order to get to a new place, from a magical scene that was clapped out and wretched, the early writers such as Pete Carroll and Ray Sherwin took an austerely reductionist approach - magic had to become more like science. In throwing out the bathwater of half-baked mysticism, those early writers also threw out the cosmic baby, the star child of genuine mystical quest.

Fortunately, the current didn't get stuck there. Since the late 1990s, there has been a rebirth of discourse about awakening in sceptical and chaos-influenced scenes. In his first book, Chaos Protocols, Gordon White exhorts us to find our invulnerability, the place from which we can engage with the world and not be paralysed or terrified by what it can do to us. Just imagine those zombie hordes of your enemies approaching... and they cannot touch you!
But Gordon neglects to tell us how to do so. His recommendation of invulnerability may be more available to some people than others.

A quick straw poll: How many people here have, if only for a moment, had the unassailable, certain feeling that you were immortal? Or perhaps to put it more accurately, that your consciousness could never end, that it just could not happen?

Where does such an intuition arise from?
By the cultivation of what Plato called anamnesis, unforgetting - remembering your deepest certainties about your true nature which were always there, which have been overlaid with societal beliefs and patterns.
This anamnesis, this revelation, always involve the awareness that the greater part of what you are lives outside of time, in eternity.

Over 2000 years ago, a Greek-educated Italian, a prophet of the mysteries called Parmenides wrote a poem which is often credited with containing the invention of logic, of the dialectic. But what that discourse, which is a set of instruction from the underworld Goddess, is for, is to prove that nothing that really exists can ever cease existing. That the most real thing in the world, your consciousness, is invulnerable to death.

So right at the heart of the Western cultural project, of science, logic and reason, lies a proof that we are immortal. Neat, eh? Even our Western culture, in its ancient heart of hearts, supports your intuition that you cannot die.

This perspective is attainable, because it will exists somewhere in you. Insights attained during meditation and visionary states will uphold its truth.

For me, this is what magic is for. The whole of the tradition exists primarily to realise our eternal and timeless nature, so that we can contribute our genius to the world rather than be paralyzed by it. So that we can live magical lives which make the world a better place, while empires crumble and dangerous clowns seem to rule the chaos. So that we can see through our own personal apocalypse to the reality of our true divine natures acting in the world.

It's strange where some ideas crop up again and again. Right at the heart of Discordianism lies the word FNORD, the nonsense word that is inserted in texts, so that we see it, but our reality tunnel edits it out, because it is meaningless. So we are left with a nagging sense that something is wrong.
But there's just a bit more to that word than meets the paranoid eye. Brenton Clutterbuck in his book Chasing Eris, claims that a wise old Discordian told him what FNORD actually means: For No-one Really Dies.

I leave you with that thought.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Why Eris?

Years ago, in New York City, my love and I were hanging out with magical friends in Eris's Big Apple, so we thought we'd do an Eris pilgrimage. We went to 23rd Street, to the corner by the Flatiron Building, where the wind gusted and lifted the skirts of the girls, and police would roust the layabouts who were ogling them, giving them the 23 Skidoo. We knew the magic was warming up when we discovered a place on 23rd St neither of us had heard of - the Lawrence and Eris Field Building, one  asset of a private educational foundation. I mean, it's not every day you come across a human called Eris, is it? And on 23rd Street!! We walked around some more. We drank cider and ate apples. It was a fun pilgrimage.

My last little Eris pilgrimage happened by... chance? Chaos? This pilgrimage was also fun, but acquired additional depths. I booked in for a meditation retreat (with https://wiserbydesign.com/) in Greece. It was on the Pelion Peninsula, a gorgeous bit of Macedonia. I looked up which myths were associated with the area and, lo and behold, Pelion, or more precisely, outside Chiron's Cave, was where the golden apple incident was actually said to have happened. I imagine if you are reading this that only the briefest recap of the story will be required.

The occasion is the wedding of sea-nymph Thetis and hero Peleus. The Olympian deities are invited. The wedding is a forced one - Thetis is not a willing trophy-bride of the arrogant hero, more the victim of rape, so there is cause for trouble from the start. Eris is not invited, so of course she turns up anyway, and to sow strife, the meaning of her name, tosses into the party a golden apple inscribed with the phrase te kalliste, to the prettiest.

So we decided to go on a little pilgrimage while we were in the area. I got a nice apple and painted it gold and wrote te kalliste on it, as my offering. Planning was subject to chaotic influences - not only did we have some problems which led to serious delays before we even left England, but when we were there and planning the pilgrimage, we nearly went to the wrong place, due to a mis-transliteration of the local town Milina as Milies, which place is also on Pelion, but miles away.

It was worth the journey, for a number of reasons. For a start, it's easy to see why demigods would pick this area for a wedding - a dramatic Palaeolithic cave on a steep forested hillside which runs down to the sea, headlands plunging down to a semi-enclosed bay dotted with tiny islands.

We invoked Our Lady of Chaos. I left my golden apple sacrifice, then I turned back and photographed it. Immediately I knew that was not a good idea; this is when it became a bit more serious. This had to be a ritual from which I took nothing home with me, including any images of what I was leaving behind. I deleted the shot and felt better immediately.

The fact that deleting the shot seemed so important I take as a good sign: I was engaging more seriously with Eris. That working, and then returning home and getting together with Discordian friends made me ask: What is it we are we doing with Eris? Why do we honour Her?

Eris is not a friend of sensible planning, the kind of thinking that is based on the assumption that things are always going to be as they were. Of course, we humans need to live in that kind of world, it makes us feel secure, lowers our stress and conserves our energy. This planning kind of thinking is our bread and butter mentation, and we identify with it, so that it becomes our dominant selfhood, our ego. Which is why we get annoyed when our plans go tits up.

But we are not always in control, not always living in a predictable world. We also need to be able to deal with confusing, complex situations, and quickly. This is a different kind of intelligence to that which assumes things and plans accordingly - this is the intelligence required to steer a speeding vehicle on a dangerous road, or to confront and be effective in situations where predicted and comfortable structures break down.

The Greeks had two words for time: kronos, which is the predictable, calendrical idea of time, and kairos, which is the moment of opportunity that requires an instant response. They also had a word for the cunning, fast intelligence that has the flexibility and lightness of touch to be able to seize the kairos when it presents itself - metis.

So when we honour Eris, not only are we honouring life's chaos and unpredictability but we are also invoking metis, the cunning that will enable us to make the best out of the chaos that's going to happen at some stage whether we like it or not.

It seems this kind of approach to magic is not for all magicians. A few years ago, senior Chaos writer Pete Carroll opined in conversation that working with Eris had led to conflict in the ranks of the chaos magic world, so we should shift our allegiance to other deities. Not long after that, when Pete Carroll and Math Kaybrin's work EPOCH, with its beautifully-drawn deity and elemental cards came out, the authors gifted our chaos group with a copy. We decided we would have to select a deity chaotically, to honour through the new deck. A guest member suggested we remove the Eris and Loki cards from the deck before doing so. Nobody else agreed - surely not inviting Eris (let alone Loki) is precisely what leads to trouble in the first place? So we went ahead with our random selection and, guess what, Eris's card came up, and we invoked Her.

This rejection of involvement with Eris seems to me to be a strange thought process for a magician: surely we honour Eris because we know that life is full of surprises, conflict and turnarounds? And surely such an attitude of stopping pretending that we are always in control can only be healthy. Honouring the chaos and unpredictability of the world is also more likely to lead to experiences of higher consciousness, in which we learn to see the world as it is, not as our expectations paint it. Someone who rejects Eris is resisting incursions of higher consciousness, is resisting the recognition of chaos that is a necessary preliminary to any experience of consciousness beyond the time-bounded (in the kronos sense) ego. An attitude to magic in which one always has to be in control is bound to lead to disappointment, reduction in general pleasure in life and, if pushed to its extreme, some sort of breakdown in which the world proves to us that we cannot always be in the driving seat.

Eris might not always be a friendly face, but what deity is invariably friendly, if you look closely enough? Eris's face is beautiful, frightening, awe-inspiring, humbling. Her frightening face is the face of the world when we have to acknowledge that we can no longer control it. Her joyous face is the world that opens up when we stop pretending we're in control because we are fed up with holding on so tight, and instead let go into what is happening.

Behind the face of every deity is a facet of the cosmos as Other. If you engage with any deity deeply enough, your reward will be to see that totality gazing back at you. Maybe you will even recognize that gaze as a feature of your own divine nature.

Hail Eris!