Discussing Pearl with students, I find myself wondering why the poem — a “visio” or “dream-vision” from the late-fourteenth century — begins and ends in a “garden of herbs.” An hour later, a book turns up in a bin at Goodwill: Paul Beyerl’s The Master Book of Herbalism. The book includes a long midsection titled “The Herbalist as a Magical Practitioner.” What do we moderns know, I wonder, about the medieval psychopharmacopeia? Beyerl helped to found an Earth-focused Wiccan organization called the Rowan Tree Church, legally incorporated in 1979. Members study and practice a tradition known as Lothloriën (named, I assume, after one of the Elven homelands in Tolkein’s Middle-Earth). In another book of his called A Wiccan Bardo, Revisited, Beyerl notes that the Lothloriën tradition works with archetypes and symbols that are compatible with Buddhist and Native American traditions as well as Neo-Paganism. Reading Beyerl is a bit like reading M.C. Richards: one senses in the wisdom of his prose the presence of a teacher in service of the Good.
Driving a shady, tree-lined section of road on the way to work the other day, I remember feeling mildly disappointed by the line of cars passing in the opposite lane, wishing there were more VW buses, not just to beautify the drive, but to reinvent reality as a place of eupsychian possibility. Lo and behold: there before me this morning, a gorgeous white and red one, restored, pristine, passing me at the same point where I’d wished it the day prior. A magic bus! And with it, a lesson: stay open to the possibility of its appearance. Reflecting on it afterwards, sunlight just so, I imagine colors and textures from the pages of old comic books, as in Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree or X-Men: Grand Design. Later for that, I tell myself, and meet some friends for drinks.
Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.
An ant explores the surface of a sunlit outdoor table. I sit across from it observing and writing on my in-laws’ back patio. A neighbor waters a garden next door as I read Erik Davis’s review of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition for Frieze magazine, written two years ago, when the show was up at BAMPFA. This is the show that inspired the course I taught this past spring. There’s an elegance to the review’s list of the show’s achievements. My eyes dwell for a time on an image included in the review, a digital reproduction of a 1965 painting by Isaac Abrams called Hello Dali.
I see echoes of the painting as I look over at flowers in my in-laws’ garden. I let this work motivate me to complete my project. I watch videos, like the radical Italian design group Superstudio’s “Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth,” a film of theirs from 1972.
Balm applied, the goad to work kicks in. I note down books I need to order, like Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. After a breakfast of homemade waffles and orange juice, I burrow away and watch Davis’s recent talk, “A Brief History of Queer Psychedelia,” where I learn about Gerald Heard’s involvement with the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.
Isocrates was the pseudonym that Heard used for the articles he published in the society’s magazine, the Mattachine Review. He also wrote articles for ONE, another early gay publication, under the pseudonym D.B. Vest. Davis also unveils a weird book of Heard’s written in the late 1960s called AE: The Open Persuader published under the pseudonym Auctor Ignotus (or maybe W Dorr Legg). Tartarus Press published a collection called Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard in the early 2000s. That, too, is a book worth tracking down. By midafternoon, elements have clustered together to cause me to wonder at the overlapping histories of psychedelics and ritual magic. The famous LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III noted that his early experiences with acid coincided, for instance, with his reading of The Kybalion. Most of the first-generation Western psychedelic crowd took up at points with Eastern tantric currents. Some folks also explored Western pagan and esoteric traditions. This outburst of spiritual yearning and experimentation remains for me in its utter mysteriousness a source of fascination. In my state of unknowing about it, the topic seems rich with narrative potential, like there’s a story there waiting to be told. Like the fate of Pedro Salvadores in the Borges story of that name, it strikes me as a symbol of something I am about to understand, but never quite do.
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.