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.
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.
In design terms, the Wizard’s tastes skewed toward the epic, the ornate — total art! cosmic syncretism! He hung large antique mirrors on walls in three of the home’s rooms; he filled most of the home’s windows with stained glass, including a large window at the front of the house featuring an image of the Eye of Providence — the latter retrieved, I’m told, from either a former church or a former Masonic Temple. From the ceilings of those of the home’s rooms adorned with foxed mirrors, he added dazzling, many-armed, many-bulbed chandeliers — beautiful, gaudy, dusty old things! The home’s several built-in bookcases may have been of his making as well — as were one room’s shelves sized for storage of records. The most characteristic of his contributions, though, was the imp crouched atop the home’s door bell, or the pair of werewolves carved into the corners of a mantle atop one room’s fireplace.
I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
If I had a library, I’d visit it mornings, evenings, I’d look for books by David Henderson, co-founder of the Umbra writer’s workshop, a group that met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. At one point Henderson was married to the black feminist scholar Barbara Christian. I have a book of his on Jimi Hendrix somewhere in my basement. By the 1980s, though, Henderson started publishing with North Atlantic Books, a press founded by Miranda July’s father, the writer Richard Grossinger. I retrieved a book of Grossinger’s from my basement earlier this week. He seems to be quite a character — a magician of sorts who apprenticed under Robert Kelly. At some point I should also look for work by Calvin Hernton, another of the writers associated with the Umbra group. Hernton studied with R.D. Laing, participating in the Institute of Phenomenological Studies and the Antiuniversity of London before returning to the US in 1970. Ishmael Reed once described him as “a modern-day warlock…the man faltering governments keep their eye on. The native who has his own cabala.”
Wizards often stroke their beards as they think. Picture it — as in a Halloween costume. ‘Tis a trope of the genre — as with Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Wizards don’t have to fit this image — but there’s a long tradition of bearded wizards, sages who clutch staffs, canes, walking sticks, wands. The particulars vary from culture to culture. Tolkien is said to have acquired the trope from an ancient Finnish epic called The Kalevala, at the heart of which is a mage named Vainamoinen — old, wise, long beard, performs magic using voice and song. Esoteric secrets and forgotten knowledges grant all such figures special powers, distinct from the powers of their peers.
A tall amaryllis sits beside me, both of us seeking light. Subjects must act: punch and kneed dough. As Sarah says, “Something doubles in an hour — it’s exciting!” Imagine change and witness it. Invent a good wizard, in the tradition more of Yoda than of Gandalf. I worry, though, about the prevalence of battle in the myths that house these characters. I suppose one enters the role, as Huxley says, “by knowing what had to be done — what always and everywhere has to be done by anyone who has a clear idea about what’s what” (Island, p. 40). In my case, it begins with a shift from soda to fruit juice. One has to live out total acceptance, even of conflict. We proceed by acquiring knowledge of what we think we are, but are not. The knowledge we imagine we lack we in fact possess. Trust the mind to furnish images to guide us. Move into a non-dual perspective, subjects and objects released from use. Dream now of pyramids lifting from a base: “Whitey on the Moon.” The whole face of the world down to details as small as Cleopatra’s nose, as seen from above.
“The mind attracts to one whatever the mind dwells upon,” reads a page I flip to in a college-ruled notebook pulled from the bins at Goodwill. The moon, waxing gibbous, pulled Sarah and I toward a Halloween party the other night. Appropriately heady, for sure, and with major magic. An altar-top arrayed with small bones. Conversations washed over me, though, to little effect. Appalachian Southern witches. Symbols of an arcane sort. It was the party of my coming out as a wizard. At one point, Sarah turned to me and read me my horoscope from her Witches’ Almanac. Apparently I’m on the verge of making a big decision which will “raise a lot of dust.” The horoscope also promised “nice aesthetics” this month. But as much as I enjoyed the care and attention to detail that went into the night’s revelries, Daphne’s death weighed solidly on my mind. It was hard to muster enough will to speak with others. Speaking of speaking: My students love to speak highly of their parents’ “hard work” launching pizza chains and amassing fortunes on Wall Street. Whenever I hear this shit, I think to myself: One could say the same about vampires. They, too, work hard sucking blood from their victims. But that doesn’t make them admirable. A hardworking vampire is still a vampire — and as such, deserves to get a stake shoved through its heart. And that’s how I feel about rich people. But I’m also no Van Helsing, so to ease my temper, I binge-watch the new season of Stranger Things. Eleven wanders alone in an Upside Down labyrinth. Thresholds between dimensions look like body tissue: uterine walls, placentas. The show relishes and savors the textures, tropes, and technologies of the 1980s. But it’s also fully absorbing in its sympathies and its use of outdated media to elicit a sense of the strange or the uncanny. New Age “psychic” or “telepathic” spaces — astral planes, other dimensions — these were very much a part of that era’s narrative universe. It’s a relief to watch a show that can once again broaden my sense of the potentials of genre. The latter, because sticky with the residue of an era’s affective investments, can reawaken phantom media antennae, exposing subjects to ghost sensations and histories half-submerged.