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.
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.
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).
Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.
I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.
I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.
By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert our shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.
Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.
“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”
Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.
She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”
“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”
More must be said, too, of Devin’s book, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice. ‘Tis a book of criticism prepared by Devin based on a dissertation he wrote under the supervision of Robert von Hallberg and Saree Makdisi at the University of Chicago. I am grateful Devin wrote it — for with its overview of prior acts of trance-scription by the likes of poets Robert Duncan, James Merrill, and H.D. comes the potential to retell the backstory of what I’ve done. It sits with me here as I write.
I admire a small stone and a pair of clam shells: mementos from last weekend’s party on the beach. In thinking about bathing the stone in salt water, an occult practice suggested in Aidan Wachter’s book Weaving Fate, I’m reminded of Devin Johnston’s Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a book I read last fall. Although most of Devin’s books are collections of poetry, the above book is a work of criticism — as were the books on Irish poetry published by Devin’s father Dillon Johnston, who Devin thanks in the above book’s acknowledgements.
I introduce each figure here, as each plays a part in my tale.
Dillon taught in my department, his time overlapping that of his more famous colleague, the poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Dillon is the one who founded the press here at my university. His name now graces our reading series.
And oddly enough, Dillon lived for a time here on Shady Blvd, this street about which I’ve been writing — his home Mitch Easter’s home, two doors down from my own. He settled there in the wake of a divorce, and stayed there for several years.
Indeed, in all respects, he seems like an interesting character — someone I would have liked to have known. By the time of my own tenancy on Shady, however, Dillon had moved on to Wash U., where he trained several of my friends and colleagues. Our times thus never aligned in our respective homes — though I suspect Dillon’s stint overlapped that of the Gay Wizard.
For hyperstition’s sake, let us assume the two to have been friends and neighbors. The story of their friendship is one I venture to tell in what follows.
Because of its stained glass, its gaudy chandeliers, its profusion of mirrors, there was always a liveliness, a vibrancy to the Shady home’s interiors. The home’s mirrors were the equivalent of portals. Black Lodge, the occult-themed bar in town, utilized similar décor—though of course, as the name suggests, with the color removed: the Shady home stripped of its shine, replaced with an abundance of black.