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.