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?”
The British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Western science is both a literary-artistic experiment and a religion. Upon the doors of its church of realism I nail my theses.
Thesis #1: Magic is a feature of some/most/all indigenous cultures. It predates colonization, and survives the latter as an ongoing site of resistance: spells cast to break spells of Empire.
Thesis #2: Magic is a paralogical retort, a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside Imperial Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy.
Thesis #3: Magic is one of the elements most commonly associated with fantasy. Yet it’s woven as well into whatever one might pit against fantasy. It is as apparent in our natures as it is on our screens, equal parts imaginary and real. Cf. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Thesis #4: Science is a subset of magic.
The Aleph is what happens when consciousness recognizes the allegory of itself and communicates with itself as through a mirror, world of divinity communicating with the earthly realm, signaling like a satellite of love.
What if Borges had “accounted” for his encounter: his experience of simultaneity, oneness, and infinity? What if he hinted, for instance, that his friend Carlos had slipped him acid: a drug first synthesized in the laboratory of Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hoffman two years prior, on April 19, 1943? (Borges published “The Aleph” in 1945.) Or, given that the postscript attached to story’s end is dated 1943, perhaps it was mescaline, a synthetic variant of peyote.
Did Borges and other magical realists experiment with psychedelics? How about indigenous plant medicines? Is that why Borges denounces the experience, calling the thing he encountered “a false Aleph” at story’s end? Is its illumination a profanation of the divine?
Forgetfulness wears away at the glimpse of paradise gleaned while high, much as it wears away at Borges’s memory of the face of his beloved Beatriz.
Borges and Huxley pair well together, thinks the Narrator. Both are blind prophets: mind manifesters gifted with inner sight.
Having enjoyed my stay in Borges’s Labyrinths, I hasten to board another of his books, The Aleph and Other Stories. Before long, I find myself there again at the House on Shady Blvd, imagining it now as an Aleph, or what Borges’s friend Carlos calls “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending” (23). Hence also a kind of time machine. Is that not the ineffable core of my story? There I am again, sunlight shining, moonlight glinting amid stained glass windows, glass chandeliers, large mirrors. “I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance,” writes Borges. “The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors of earth and none of them reflected me […]. I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe” (27-28).
Twenty-first century subjects of capitalist modernity and whatever postmodern condition lies beyond it have up to Now imagined themselves trapped in the world of imperial science. The world as seen through the telescopes and microscopes parodied by the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. That optical illusion became our world-picture or world-scene — our cognitive map — did it not? Globe Theatre projected outward as world-stage became Spaceship Earth, a Whole Earth purchasable through a stock exchange.
Next thing we know, we’re here.
Forms from dreamland awaken into matter.
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.
Early on in the semester ahead, we’ll need to discuss magic, positing the latter as a paralogical retort to the patriarchal Royal Society and its imperial science. Also a coping strategy, a response to lives disrupted by war, authors displaced and dispossessed, as in the case of Cavendish. Magic is a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside the New Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy. Tolkien takes up much the same cause in his poem “Mythopoeia,” written following a discussion with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson. In the course of this famed discussion, Lewis is said to have denounced myths, describing the latter as “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien’s poem replies in character, its words spoken by “Philomythos” (or “myth-lover”) to Lewis’s “Misomythos” (or “myth-hater”). Tolkien composed the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred meter of British Enlightenment poets, so as to critique the latter on its own turf.
Why does Wells propel his Time Traveler into as distant and bleak a future as the one imagined in The Time Machine? It’s the future as pictured from the standpoint and subject-position of the Traveler himself as he recounts his journey for others. Wells, meanwhile, imagined other futures elsewhere and elsewhen, as during his later years, following his split with the Fabian Society. His political ideal of those later years was the “World State”: a single global technocratic “world commonwealth,” governed by a scientific elite. In his twenties, however, Wells may have interacted for a time with a secret society of a different sort: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His run-in with the Order is thought to have occurred in London in 1894, the year prior to the publication of The Time Machine, Wells’s first great success as a novelist. Ithell Colquhoun mentions this run-in in her book Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn — or at the very least speculates about a “Fabian contingent” within a Golden Dawn splinter group called the Order of the Stella Matutina or “Morning Star.” Colquhoun describes Wells’s 1911 short story “The Door in the Wall” as “in the line of GD tradition” (192). I find myself reading again descriptions of Golden Dawn initiation rituals, like the following from Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabitha Cicero’s Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition:
“The goal of initiation is to bring about the illumination of the human soul by the Inner and Divine Light. A true ‘initiate’ is an individual whose Higher Self (or Higher Genius) has merged with the Lower Personality and actually incarnated into the physical body. The Personality is left in charge of the day-to-day routines of living and working, but the Higher Genius is free to look out at the world through the eyes of the initiate. Through this experience, the individual is given a permanent extension of consciousness which is impossible to mistake. Many times a student of the mysteries is drawn to a particular mystical current without knowing it. A series of ‘coincidences’ and synchronicities will often direct (or sometimes shove) a person toward that current through books or through meeting other people who also have a connection with the current. During this time, the student’s psychic faculties are still relatively undeveloped, yet the inner spark has been ignited. However, a full initiation, or dawning of the Inner Light, is evident when the entire aura is illuminated.”
Of course, one can be a solitary magician. One can tap into the Golden Dawn’s magic, as Wells did, without having to become a member of any particular group or organization. But according to Cicero and Cicero, the solitary magician is at a disadvantage, “not having a group of temple-mates to consult if problems arise” (xxvi).
I okay “Thanks,”
but is okaying it now
Should I regret not
when, upon your mistreatment of me,
I took leave of you,
As one might regret not
to a seat in Economy Plus?
Or does regret
just breed regret?
Upon my asking this
of my remorse
I release it,
with intent to do better next time.
“The basic law of magic,”
says The Illuminatus Trilogy,
is “As ye give, so shall ye get.”
You didn’t give,
So why should I?
Instead you told others
my addressing myself
to another you
and others like you.
To get off that wheel
And make thanks okay
one would have to
give as one would
an offering of peace.