Breakfast at a café near the Farringdon Station, an egg sandwich with fatty bacon and cheese on a panini. Trudging through Jason Louv’s deeply uneven John Dee and the Empire of Angels, I find myself wondering whether Enochian magic isn’t just a viper’s nest full of power-tripping Christofascists. Before I become too entrenched in this opinion, though, my flatmates intervene, commandeering my person for a group trip to the Kathy Acker exhibition at the ICA.
A dreary day — cold, rainy — most of it spent indoors reading the final hundred pages of Ithell Colquhoun’s book on MacGregor Mathers at the British Library. I’m all for observation of synchronicities and correspondences, but Mathers’s attempts to align various ancient magical systems — alchemy, astrology, Hermetic Qabalah, John Dee’s angelic alphabet, Egyptian and Celtic lore — leaves me exhausted and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s time to shift course.
Pint glasses clank together in a bin behind a bar emptied of patrons on a gray evening — the eve of another workweek. Pubs of this sort are all wood, leather, and tweed. Old-timey, tradition-bound. But comfortable all the same. I’ve been reading up on witches these past few days, Alex Mar’s book Witches in America leading me through a brief history featuring figures like Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley and groups like the OTO. I’m of mixed mind regarding this history, curious but wary. The power of these traditions seems undeniable — but what are the principles guiding this power, and toward what end?
These first few days in London have fed me an abundance of inputs — colors, textures, lectures, exhibitions. Here I am in Spa Fields, a small park behind Exmouth Market, struggling to assimilate what I’ve encountered. I attended a wonderful event last night at The Horse Hospital called “Towards a Progressive Magic.” The talks by Amy Hale and Phil Legard spoke directly to my current interest in esotericism and the occult, but a path hasn’t yet revealed itself. What exactly is the issue? What am I searching for? Statues? Pianos? Pigeons? The John Soane House was a blast yesterday afternoon, with its crypt and its post-apocalyptic bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England, as was this morning’s tour of the Globe Theatre and the show I caught this afternoon at the Tate Modern devoted to Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning.
How about groaning laundry rooms and animated films that scare little kids? How about blue mermaids with turquoise chains? By following a few simple rules, we can feel at home amid the alchemical symbolism of Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” A librarian from my childhood confides over my shoulder about the limits of her compassion. She refuses to care, she says, for those who come back sunburned after a day at the beach, likening these latter to hungry ones who refuse to eat. I smile and pretend not to differ, even as I ruminate about what it would mean to approach the Tarot as a book, or the fragments of one.
I select my materials by responding to local happenings, spontaneous sense-impressions. I perform acts of listening, openly and receptively, with few preconceptions and little to no prejudgment. Signs when received are taken lightly, but still granted due reverence, as befits things of wonder and mystery. Let us reply our way into an economy of giving. “In mythology, medieval literature, and occultism,” say texts of yore, “the language of the birds is postulated as a mystical, perfect divine language, green language, Adamic language, Enochian, angelic language.” Listen and learn. Track down 12th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur’s The Conference of the Birds.
Culture is a necessary inheritance — a preinstalled “operating system” of sorts. Yet with our dreams and our fantasies, we can hack it, play new mind games, produce new subjectivities. D.W. Winnicott points a way forward in his theories about use of the “intermediate area,” the space inscribed in the ludic magic circle drawn between internal and external reality, past and future. Infants use what Winnicott calls a “transitional object” in their experiments with this area. Books and poetry are transitional objects of this sort for me, allowing me to communicate with myself across the years. An old journal entry from August 1999, for instance, points me across a twenty-year gap toward the organ part in “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel, knowing me enough to know I’d like it.