Do Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the heroes of Tolkien’s fictions, pass through portals? Their home in the Shire features a circular door, through which they step when they begin their journeys. ‘Tis a magic circle, of the kind theorized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. The world in the circle is the realm of Faerie — or what Huizinga would call the realm of play. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
Tolkien, as one of the preeminent figures of twentieth-century fantasy, shares Huizinga’s interest in this other, “temporary” sphere born of play. That the worlds that result from this sphere are temporary in nature leads Tolkien to assume them “sub-creations” — “secondary” worlds, as he says in his 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories” — but not in a way that diminishes their value. In keeping with his Catholicism, he believes that humans are handiwork of a single god, a single divine creator. And therein lies our magic, he argues. Created in that being’s image, he says, we too possess a capacity to create. We who are “created sub-creators” in one reality get to be creators of worlds of our own.
So sayeth the Fantasist.
“But what if, instead of distinguishing these worlds as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary,’” adds the Narrator, “we opted rather to call them ‘partner worlds,’ or ‘corresponding pairs’ — as in the Hermetic saying, ‘As above, so below’?”
“What if, in so doing,” replies the Traveller, “we followed the paths of the Alchemists and the Surrealists? What if, as Magico-Psychedelic Realists, we brought them together, allowed them to merge?”
What are we to make, though, of the attention Cavendish grants to John Dee and Edward Kelly? She knew of the pair’s angelic conversations through Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. Dee and Kelly were the inspiration for the play’s characters Dr. Subtle and Capt. Face. Margaret’s husband William was one of Jonson’s patrons.
If I were to enter the John Dee rabbit hole opened by my wanting to follow up on his appearance in The Blazing World, I could practice for students the keeping of a captain’s log. Into this log I would register three semi-recent biographies of Dee: Benjamin Woolley’s from 2001, Glyn Parry’s from 2012, and Jason Louv’s from 2018. Dee will make an appearance again later in the course when we discuss the Golden Dawn.
Printed on my shirt: “THE UNCREATED ETERNITY / THE UNFATHOMABLE PRIMUM MOBILE.” ‘Tis a symbol utilized by Rosicrucians: an elaborate diagram, rendered partly inscrutable through wear and the passage of time. From what I can gather, though, the diagram establishes a network of correspondences, the cosmos mapped onto a stack of circles with wings. Much of it is beyond my understanding, though I’m reminded of the Sefirot from Kabbalah: the 10 attributes or “emanations” through which the Ein Sof, “The Infinite,” the unknowable divine essence, is thought to reveal itself. Studying the centermost circle in the diagram, I discover an inscription: “Let everything grow / and bring forth seed.”
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.