Lionel Hampton’s Golden Vibes dances through me, my skin resonating like keys beneath Hampton’s mallets. During Tuesday’s performance, percussionist Sandy Blocker stood from his drums and played a balafon. Meanwhile I got bills to pay, roles to play, life pregnant with life. In the Renaissance occult imagination studied by Frances A. Yates, an “umbra” is a shadow formed by the light of the divine mind — light we can only ever seek “through its shadows, vestiges, seals” (The Art of Memory, p. 268). One of these days, I tell myself, I should track down the Nock-Festugière edition of the Corpus Hermeticum along with Norman O. Brown’s book Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. I sit in a dark room for a few moments, in a hat and a cape, observing shadows, thinking about stars and moons, ancient debates between Egyptian and Greek philosophers arising again from memory, debates of great consequence, much of it still hidden. For Renaissance occultists like Alexander Dicson, the roots of the art of memory lie in ancient Egypt, not ancient Greece. “And if it is separated from Egypt,” he writes, “it can effect nothing” (as quoted in Yates 272).
Toying with the famous hermetic aphorism, “As above, so below,” I begin to tell a story in my head of a protagonist who comes to regard his consensus reality as the ontological equivalent of a matrix or gameworld. Most of the occupants of the gameworld are split subjects. They know themselves only in light of what we might call their “this-worldly” guise, each person’s identity fully sutured to that of its gameworld avatar. This process of identification causes the person to forget its additional role as player. This is where our story begins: for our protagonist has arrived at a thunderous realization. Together, he realizes, these two components — this-worldly avatar and otherworldly player — form the Janus faces, the days and nights, of a single consciousness. This realization arrives at a particular moment; certain technological capacities have to be reached — or so I imagine. But when have civilizations ever lacked their chessboards and labyrinths? All of the ancient myths featuring these objects remain active and relevant in the time of our protagonist.
The insistence on “Law” in The Kybalion, the book’s privileging of “Ego” and “Mastery,” its claim that “Chance is but a name for Law not recognized” (171): all of this suggests that the book is both more and less than it seems. The Three Initiates dedicated the book to Hermes Trismegistus, after all; and Hermes, of course, was known to be something of a trickster. I appreciate the book’s evocation of an ancient, secret doctrine. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the answers I seek lie hidden from plain sight, awaiting my readiness to receive them. But most of what the book offers — from its defense of “the strong” to its claims regarding the origins of its teachings — seems flawed and suspect: expressions of the prejudices of the man thought to be its author, a Chicago-based occultist from the turn of the last century named William Walker Atkinson. Yet this is precisely how the Hermes archetype tends to operate, using thievery and deception to transmit messages between worlds.