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.
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.
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).
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.
I leave you with that thought.