The ancient Egyptian deity Set has an interesting biography. Early on, he played an important role, defending the solar deity against chaos, ruling the desert, and being married into the divine family. In later myths, he is portrayed in less favorable terms, as a brother-slayer, a trickster, in conflict with his family, a sexual predator, subject to the judgement of the gods. Not unlike the Norse deity Loki, he becomes pregnant and gives birth (to a golden disc). In his conflict with Horus, he both mutilates his opponent and is castrated. In historical terms, he becomes patron deity of the foreign Hyksos dynasty, associating him with foreigners once and for all. While this did not hurt his reputation initially, after Egypt was ruled by several foreign powers (Assyria, Persia, Greece), he was demonized. His cult persisted in ancient times regardless of all these setbacks, and there are some modern-time followers.
The Set Working
It was one of these modern-time devotees who led a ritual I attended, during which I had a brief vision of a hunched figure with large ears beckoning me to follow behind, through a boulder-strewn landscape of dry earth under a starry night sky – something straight out of some modernist poem. Nothing else became apparent during the ceremony, however.
Not long afterwards, I found my thoughts circling around this short scrap of a vision. I queried two trusted divination systems about Set’s plans, and received “The Earth”, and “All the Dead”: obvious references to the long-disused graveyard in the vicinity. In Egyptian mythology, Set was the Lord of the Black Soil (i.e. the desert, where the dead live), so this was a fitting place for a follow-up meeting with him.
When I arrived at the former cemetery, which nowadays is a park with some tall trees in it, it was late night. I had brought some beer as an offering – after all, beer was an Egyptian invention – and poured a generous libation, after announcing my presence to Set. There was a niche in the old cemetery wall, with steps leading up to it, which I sat on, sharing my beer with the old Egyptian deity, and expecting to learn what this special invitation was all about.
“Look out through the slit in the wall”, was the message I got. “What do you see?” I reported on the occasional passing car, the nighttime view of the town, light and shadows, and so on, to the god’s satisfaction. When the beer was used up, I felt more offerings were in order, and I fetched some fruit and a hot, sweet cup of coffee to brighten up the night, and maybe receive some more concrete results from the meeting. Set was still there when I returned, and graciously accepted some sugar-laden beverage. Then, on an impulse, and because no more divine favors seemed to be forthcoming, I tossed a piece of banana out through the slit in the wall. Set lunged after it and I was alone again.
Insights Gained from the Set Working
Then some insights came pouring in, or rather, surfaced into my angry, slightly drunk consciousness.
Set is a mongrel mutt. Even the ancient representations are unclear as to what kind of animal stood model for his images. Egyptologists refer to a “Set animal”, which could be anything from an Aardvark to a donkey or a jackal – or even a giraffe, judging from Set’s rectangular ears.
Moreover, he is a street mutt, who will bum offerings off anyone he can. And he is successful! After over a millennium since the pagan temples were closed, he is still around, he even has a priesthood of acolytes who keep the offerings coming. A smart mutt! A trickster mutt. He will do the crazy wisdom teacher act, the guru act, for any favor he can get. You will be invited to the special secret cemetery to receive deep teachings, remember to bring beer!
An article on Peter J. Carroll’s website, “The Neo-Platonic Chocolate Screwdriver” (2014), sets out to examine why so many magickians and mystics “seem quite unaccomplished or dysfunctional on the material plane and so frequently penniless”. Carroll’s answer lies not in anything obvious, such as inequality of opportunity, or persons having different criteria for accomplishment from his own, but in the adoption of the neo-platonic worldview.
He characterises Neo-Platonism as:
positing the separate existence of the ‘essences’ of phenomena […] Basically in Platonism ‘whatever you can think of’ acquires some sort of a transcendental reality as an ‘essence’, and sometimes as a ‘sentient essence’ as well.
The problem with this worldview, according to Carroll, is its “insufficient reference to observed reality”. Essences cannot be sensed, and thus Neo-Platonism has “very low predictive power”, losing out to mechanistic thinking, which by focusing instead on what things do and how they work (rather than on pointless abstract speculation about what they somehow really are) is able to engage with reality more effectively.
Already we have arrived at the central issue: the assumption that to know how to work a thing is to know it fully. But in his rush to have “strangled the last astrologer with the guts of the last spiritual master” (2000: 46), Carroll never properly investigated what the latter might have offered: an actual means of knowing things as they really are.
Suppose I sit and stare at a blank wall. I experience the whiteness of the wall, its granularity, its undulations and cracks and scars. The details of the wall are endless, inexhaustible, revealing newer facets in each moment; indeed, what sense does it make to say this wall has some kind of singular “essence”? “Phenomena remain mutable, not fixed by essence”, Carroll asserts. “[P]henomena consist just of what they actually do, they don’t also have a separate abstract form of ‘being’, except in our minds […] phenomena lack any form of ‘otherness’”.
But what he overlooks is that we also have the experience of our experience of the blank wall. This has none of the attributes of the blank wall (whiteness, crackedness, lumpiness, etc.); all of those are within the experience of the blank wall. The level of experience I am pointing to is the shape taken by experience itself; not anything in experience.
It usually takes considerable time and effort to develop awareness of this level of experience. Carroll’s talents are considerable, but a flair for meditation seems not to be among them. His meditative exercises for novices in Liber MMM (Carroll 1987: 14-16) are not suitable for developing this level of insight. Other forms of contemplation, however, can cultivate this level of experience that is the experience itself, from where it can be seen how any experience is the same as any other experience, regardless of its contents, or of who is having it. This provides access to a level of awareness that is universal, and casts an interesting and (at first) unexpected light on who can be said to be “having” this awareness, and on what its supposed object is.
The biggest problem with “essence” is understanding what the word means. It is from the Greek, ousia. This may come as a surprise, but the level of experience I described above is what the neo-platonists actually meant by it, rather than what is understood by the terms it is usually translated into: “essence”, “substance” (ouch), or (slightly better) “being”.
Here is how the philosopher Pierre Grimes describes ousia:
[T]o understand the forces and ideas that operate in our problems, we must turn our attention around and reflect on those things that escaped our notice. This turning about of our very being is what is called in Greek ousia, and in that motion there is a turning about of the mind toward a reality beyond mere existence. […] For Plato this reflective turning about is inherent in the very nature of Being, and when this feature is stressed it is called ousia. Thus, through our existence we can touch upon Being and participate in Being as ousia. (Grimes 1998: 50)
As Carroll suggests, essence (ousia) is not “observable” or “testable” but, as Grimes asserts, it may be grasped through becoming it. To do this, we turn the mind about upon itself, through contemplation, transcending sensory appearances to participate in Being directly. Essence (ousia) is not simply a concept or supposition, but a direct understanding attained through a practice.
The idea that Neo-Platonism tried to set itself apart from questions later raised by psychology or phenomenology is mostly a product of the mistranslation and misunderstanding of ousia. Consider the following proposition as another route into Neo-Platonism: the thing we know the least about is matter.
Why does an atomic particle act the way it does? We can perceive it, observe it, learn to predict its attributes and behaviours, but we cannot comprehend it “from the inside” in the same way as when we ask of another person: Why did he say that? We cannot predict with certainty the behaviours of even those closest to us, yet nevertheless we understand them deeply. Like us, they are a being, and so we can participate in their being; from the inside we grasp their “essence”. But the essence arises from our participation; it is not a separable thing “in” something.
Carroll writes that for nineteenth century occultism, when it became apparent that “the adept can more or less manufacture gods and spirits to order”, this was another “crack” in the edifice of neo-platonic thinking, but hopefully it is clear by this point how it was nothing of the sort. Would the great minds of the Platonic tradition really have concerned themselves with a worldview so patently broken as the one Carroll describes?
The earliest known analogue computer is the Antikythera mechanism, which has been dated (at the latest) to around the time of the destruction of Plato’s original academy (86 BC); in other words about 500 years before Neo-Platonism. Mechanistic thinking was already fully available to Greek civilization and its predictive power was well-understood; the Antikythera mechanism was an astronomical calculator. Yet by this time Plato’s ideas had already flourished for 400 years at the original academy, and would return again as Neo-Platonism (410-529AD). Why would the Greeks retain this so-called “chocolate screwdriver” if, apparently, they had a perfectly fine set of metal ones?
Rather than providing understanding through participation in being, for Carroll Neo-Platonism is “a set of unfalsifiable ideas that have very low predictive power”. Regarding the hapless mages who lend credence to these useless ideas, “the more they let the Neoplatonic style influence their everyday activities the more of a mess they seem to get into”.
Carroll was one of the figures responsible for re-inventing magick based on the concept of paradigm-shifting. He would not claim that the neo-platonic paradigm is wrong (because that would be a backdoor through which a notion of “truth” could creep in), but that the “mess” is caused because Neo-Platonism is a less useful way of negotiating the world.
Yet seeking a useful paradigm is nevertheless to act on a basis of opinion and belief, because our choices are then guided by what we want. What is right and what is adventitious are not necessarily the same, but, as Socrates says: “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good” (Plato 1997: 1131 [VI, 508d]). In other words, understanding is aided by the greatest possible good. But where we are guided by want, rather than goodness, then what we merely believe to be best can come to stand in place of what is genuinely good. Mechanistic thinking delivers predictable outcomes, within its paradigm, but buying into the paradigm itself can confuse predictability with goodness.
“We obviously don’t actually have fixed selves or souls or ‘essences’”, Carroll declares. “Watch a child grow, or more disturbingly, watch dementia take an elderly person.” But the neo-platonists watched children grow, and dementia was not unknown to them. These were as great a joy and tragedy to them as to us. Nevertheless they adhered to a meticulously reasoned and developed notion of the soul. Perhaps Carroll believes they were breathtakingly more stupid than he, or maybe he prefers the predictability of his own paradigm to the idea that, just perhaps, by “soul” is meant something different from what he has understood.
Replacing truth with utility, and dismissing understanding for observation, has led to a “mess” that is, unfortunately, at the very heart of chaos magick in its present form. Carroll’s half-baked views on Neo-Platonism cast little light on his odd non-question about why others make less money than he, but perhaps some light on himself: he seems to regard the measure of a mage as his or her bank balance, and he is maybe projecting inferiority onto others.
Other writings on his website suggest he will be joining, in spirit at least, the knees-up at the Brexit after-party, with Farage, Rees-Mogg, BoJo and company (Carroll, 2016). Their superior mechanistic reasoning renders their motivation inscrutable to the neo-platonic hoi polloi, but I would hazard a wild guess it might be, perhaps: stay rich, and get richer.
All quotations in this article are from Carroll 2014, unless otherwise indicated.
We have sermonised previously on unwelcome developments in contemporary chaos magick. Now, Gary Lachman’s latest book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018), delivers another body-blow to the chaos magick current. Consider this passage:
Where the liar knows the truth and respects it – he does not want to get caught in his lie – the bullshitter [i.e. Trump] couldn’t care less about it. He isn’t interested in the truth […] He is interested in the effect his bullshit has on his audience […] For chaos magick and postmodernism, whether something is true or false simply no longer matters. Truth or falsehood are beliefs which we can take on or put off as need be. (Lachman, 2018: 75)
Tracing lines of influence between New Thought (aka “positive thinking”), postmodernism, and chaos magick, Lachman shows how the ethos of “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted” has enabled ideologues of the far right to secure their hold on power.
Trump is more directly a product of New Thought, a philosophy which avers that imagining an outcome strongly enough will cause it to materialize (and is probably partly why Trump imagines he is the best at everything), but there is evidence that others who supported him into power – such as Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer – have done so with a more explicit awareness of chaos magick theory, and having employed techniques such as “meme magick”.
Lachman’s book is a warning. Chaos magick is its villain. Without an ethical framework, chaos magick techniques can be appropriated by anyone. It is chilling to read quotations from the works of Julian Vayne and Phil Hine (just standard stuff about shifting beliefs, nudging reality; nothing disagreeable) in contexts that illuminate the alt-right’s agenda.
Chaotes who do not want chaos magick to become confused with neo-fascism need to wake up. The chaos star is already the emblem of Eurasian nationalism, thanks to Alexander Dugin. The strength of chaos magick is its weakness. Unlike other traditions, it does not tell its adherents what to believe; that would be silly, because adoption of belief is precisely one of the practical tools it offers for changing reality. Consequently, chaos magickians tend to do far more actual magick than traditions that offer a worldview rather than just a set of techniques. But without a worldview there is simply no frame of reference for assessing whether those techniques are used well or responsibly.
Consider belief-shifting, which, argues Wahid Azal, can become “the vehicle for self-realization and understanding of the coincidentia oppositorum underlying all phenomena” (Azal, 2016). However, “with Dugin and his acolytes the issue is not linked specifically to any spiritual practice and its realization per se but rather it is purely about political praxis and the will to power in its crudest form” (Azal, 2016). In other words, belief-shifting and its effects are not a means of arriving at a greater understanding of the true nature of a world that can be affected by changes in belief, or the true nature of a self that can turn upon itself in this way, but simply as a means of imposing ego upon the world.
Those of us who reject the far right are not necessarily comfortable with neo-liberalism as an alternative. This is where Dugin, Spencer, and their ilk are especially dangerous, because although much is attractive in their criticism of neo-liberalism, everything in their proposals for where we must go instead is skewed from the outset.
The logic of world liberalism and globalisation pulls us into the abyss of postmodern dissolution and virtuality […] The usual phenomenon now is the loss of identity, and already not simply only national or cultural identity, but even sexual, and soon enough even human identity. (Dugin, 2012: 84)
Dugin wants to resist the dissolution with which liberalism confronts him. But chaos magickal praxis, with its basis in exactly the postmodernist thinking that Dugin wants to defend against, insists that identity is by definition fluid. How can manipulating one’s identity be supposed to make it non-manipulatable thereafter? Retention of identity, from a chaos magickal perspective, could only be in a paradoxical sense of conceding that it never existed in the first place.
The “active metaphysics” Dugin ominously calls for, in order to “realise the end of times” (Dugin, 2012: 100), will bring about his desired change of reality through a shift in belief. But in that case reality will be shown to have exactly the fluid, malleable nature that Dugin wants to guard against.
Lachman points out the same fundamental contradiction in Richard Spencer and the alt-right, who shift identities and beliefs in order for their meme magick to work, yet at the same time insist “race is the foundation of identity” (cited in Lachman, 2018: 80).
Those who are appropriating chaos magick in order to realise the aims of the far right are using tools that do not match their aims. But the tools work, so why worry? This is the problem with chaos magick: there seems to be no requirement to develop understanding. You do not need to look deeper into chaos magick in order to get it to work. Unless you actually want to understand what it is that you are really doing, and who that really makes you.
A fascism that has been realised through shifting beliefs and meme magick is not what it seems. Do the likes of Trump, Putin and Farage actually have objectives that are more than a corollary of their own aggrandisement? Dugin appears to confront this:
This personality is the political man’s simulacrum. It is something that imitates the political soldier, in the same way that postmodernity imitates Modernity. [… W]hat we see is the undisguised, rotten liberal post-human and the pseudo-human, the pseudo-soldier, within whom the general substance of this phase of history has found itself. This is why we have the phenomenon of contemporary fascism, which is an excellent illustration of this condition. Every last vestige of fascism that was embodied by political soldiers ran out in 1945. Each and every declared fascist after 1945 is a simulacrum. (Dugin, 2012: 95)
Dugin recognises that the methods he proposes yield a politics that is not what it appears, but he is content to ride with it. As Azal describes this, from the perspective of those even harder right than Dugin, “he has in recent times moved […] into what some neo-Traditionalists would probably characterize as ‘counter-initiatic currents’ and the ‘Counter-Tradition’” (Azal, 2016).
Its lack of an ethics or worldview accounts for another oddity of chaos magick that many have highlighted, but none engages with as a glaring flaw: how almost every book on chaos magick is a book for beginners. With the clue in its title, an exception was Alan Chapman’s Advanced Magick for Beginners (2008), which dared to reinstate and re-clarify the Great Work as an obligatory goal for chaos magickians.
The methods of chaos magick will most likely continue to be appropriated by and become associated with the aims and agenda of the far right. Unless chaos magick grows up and accepts that a worldview and ethics is an intrinsic part of magickal practice, then it will become subsumed within these movements. The way to resist is to show the alt-right, and others, how their appropriation of these methods undermines their aims; the fascism produced by these means is self-contradictory and fake. We do this by allowing our own practice of these methods to lead us, through experience, to a deeper understanding of what reality is, and who we truly are.
A few weeks ago I returned from the toughest meditation retreat ever. Twelve of the roughest, most humiliating days. Rough, because suicidal ideation is never fun. Humiliating, because I was the gibbering nutcase of the group. After thirty-odd years of practising meditation I had supposed I was past getting my arse kicked so badly.
It was an independently organised event; nine of us, in a small castle on the edge of a forest somewhere in Europe. Our practice was fire kasina – not a common one these days, although this type of meditation is described extensively in the classical Buddhist manuals.
A kasina is a physical object that acts as a target for concentration. Kasinas come in various forms, sometimes as coloured disks (blue kasina, yellow kasina, etc.), or sometimes with elemental properties, such as a disk made of clay, a bowl of water, or an empty aperture of some kind (respectively, the kasinas of earth, water and air). We chose what is perhaps the most convenient form of fire kasina: a simple candle flame.
Kasina practise involves focusing on your chosen object with eyes open, for a relatively short period, until a retinal after-image develops. At this point the eyes are closed and the after-image is taken as the object of concentration proper. Next, peculiar things begin to happen. The meditator enters a realm where the distinction between perceptions and mental images is less apparent than in daily life. As one’s baseline level of concentration increases, so the boundary between external perception and internal mentation becomes increasingly attenuated.
Kasina meditation is a means of access to the realm of the siddhis (psychic powers). It cultivates a state of mind in which visions, out-of-body travel and contact with discarnate entities become vivid, lived experiences. Veridical telepathic and clairvoyant experiences are less common, but may also make an appearance within this state.
Its connection with siddhis is probably one reason why this practice is not commonly taught. Another is that twenty minutes daily, albeit not without benefit, is simply inadequate to develop the concentration required to experience the dramatic stuff. This demands retreat conditions; at the very least, ten days of concerted effort.
A kasina retreat is an occasion for practising magick in a Buddhist style. In secular terms, I would describe it as a long, slow journey into psychosis, and (hopefully) back again.
I had some stressful psychological issues before the retreat, and was hoping to use it as an opportunity to confront them. I set an intention to meet my Holy Guardian Angel (HGA) in the ultra-realistic vision-space that kasina practice provides, hoping for powerful healing effects. Things started well enough. After a couple of days focusing on the candle and stoking up my concentration, I closed my eyes on getting into bed and my visual field was scored with a luminous sigil. When I opened my eyes it was gone, but back again each time I closed them. Not quite a perception, yet more than a mental image, it conveyed a sense that something had me marked for attention.
Two days later, 4.45am, I was woken by three loud knocks at the bedroom door. The rhythm was forceful, urgent, and sent my heart pounding in my throat. No one was outside and my roommate had not stirred. Both incidents signalled that my angel was on its way, but during the days that separated them, somehow, my concentration had fallen apart. I could not focus on the candle for even a few seconds. Unhelpful thoughts started to make themselves heard: “If I cannot do even this, then what do I have left?” I was sucked into deep and painful depression. My whole life seemed a failure. I hadn’t enough painkillers in my luggage to do the job, so the only option was to hang myself in the woods. I also kept falling into episodes of panicky derealisation; a line from Dick’s Ubik seemed to encapsulate this: “He felt all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.” I was locked out from what was truly real, barred from getting back in, yet terrified that if I succeeded I would only be overwhelmed by what was inside. The meditation was harmful; it would only send me mad. How could I get through the following days without killing myself or going bat-shit crazy with panic?
A sliver of me retained enough sense to talk with the teacher. What helped was his reassurance that I could let myself panic, go nuts, whatever; the group would take care of me. Strengthened, I climbed back onto the saddle, and realised I had been resisting the build-up of concentration, fearful of re-entering states similar to my recent, traumatic dalliance with LSD. But once my concentration really was up, it actually wasn’t so bad. The rest of the group now had three days’ march on me, and were hitting the dramatic stuff. The best I could hope for now was a meeting with the angel just before the retreat was due to end.
During the preceding dark days I came down with a cold, including wheezing lungs and coughing fits. In the communal practice room I was disturbing others, so I went to the woods to practise. Because I had set an intention to meet my HGA, then at dawn, midday and dusk each day I stood by the same tree stump, surrounded by a rough circle of young trees, and performed “The Bornless Ritual”, an invocation used by Crowley specifically for this purpose. Nearby, a stream meandered through the wood. By its bank were older trees, their base and lower flanks dressed in spongy moss. On dry days, the leaf litter seethed with spiders and vicious-looking ants, so I made my seat upon the cool, damp moss, leaning against a gnarled tree trunk, beside the trickling water.
I learnt much about elemental magick on this retreat. Although there was a part of me never in any doubt my angel would appear, predictably this occurred in a totally unpredictable manner.
Spirits of place
There was no candle flame out in the woods. For a few days, it rained softly. I put on my waterproofs and sank gently into the earth for hours. Psychologically, I was frazzled; fire was probably the least suitable element for me to be working with, but in the woods I could surround myself with water and earth. I learnt that whatever kasina you choose, it penetrates into your mind, revealing strange insights.
You stare at the kasina until a retinal after-image forms, and then you close your eyes. A yellow candle flame would be expected to produce a bluish retinal after-image that fades after a few seconds. But this is not what happens. Instead, concentration on the after-image produces an ovoid shape of vivid, yellowish-green. Within the oval, minute filigree details, resembling golden gears or cogs, can be observed; and sometimes, around its edge at regular intervals, exquisitely tiny blue-green dots. This curious visual object is called the nimitta. As concentration develops, the nimitta undergoes distinct changes. From the ovoid it transforms into an intensely bright red dot; next, a crater-like black dot; then it fades entirely, and the background of the visual field assumes prominence. This is the most challenging phase of the practice, but if the concentration can become wide and expansive, yet without straining or spacing out, then, eventually, out of the murky greyness of the background will emerge intense multi-sensory visions.
Initially, the candle flame was required to produce the nimitta. But, after a few days, everyone was reporting the nimitta showing up spontaneously, or at will, without the need for any physical object to produce an after-image. It is as if kasina practice builds an internal reservoir of concentration that, after a certain point, becomes self-sustaining.
A couple of days into the retreat, when I closed my eyes I could see a circulating mass in the centre of the visual field. Again: it was neither a perception nor a mental image. The more I practised, the stronger it seemed to grow. In the woods, I only had to focus on it and the nimitta would appear from out of it, proceeding through its usual stages. The pulsating mass persisted for a few days after the retreat, but gradually faded. It had a strange sense of agency, as if it were something internal but somehow with its own character. Although others were experiencing spontaneous appearances of the nimitta, none seemed to recognise my description of the circulating mass.
I would visit the practice room when my lungs were better or no one else was there, but increasingly I carried the woods with me indoors. Indoors, the nimitta would arise from the candle flame, shining brightly, but against a mass of living, growing tendrils and roots. These slyly formed an arch, the nimitta at its apex, a lamp lighting a passageway deep inside the earth. In the vision space, sometimes I descended into these spaces, sinking down past roots and swathes of cold, wet moss, from within which a single eye would open for a moment and sluggishly close. Impish, mocking faces with a faery vibe would sometimes form. They took delight in the difficulties I experienced with the practice. Others had encountered similar beings, and one day we performed a banishing in the practice room, in case obstructive elementals were finding their way inside.
The most intense visions of the retreat, such as my concentration could provide, for I didn’t reach the level required for the high-end stuff, were encounters with spirits of place. For instance: out in the woods lay a giant made of flint. He was partially buried, partially disinterred, and endured this state forever: never completely emerging from the earth, never completely concealed. Another time, a board buried in soil was turned and, stuck to the other side, a giant, mottled grub, its flesh soft like a caterpillar’s, and papery, like the fabric of a wasp’s nest. Then something insectoid, green, and with compound eyes came creeping across leaf litter on long, black, filament legs. From its pipe-like mouth it breathed an iridescent blue vapour.
These spirits of the woods were only passingly interested in me, but mostly preoccupied by their own mysterious functions. They seemed personifications of geological processes; amalgamated images of what thrives in subterranean damp, or on the dry forest floor. I learnt that when you give yourself to an environment, focusing on its objects to the exclusion of what might otherwise occupy your mind, then that environment extends inside you to reveal things otherwise unseen. The gift of these spirits was the cooling, grounding, stabilising properties of water and earth. I had not until then properly appreciated the revitalising qualities of these elements.
Abramelin in twelve days
The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage is the standard ritual for attaining contact with the HGA, but ever since an earlier and different translation of the text was found from the one published by S.L. Mathers, there has been disagreement among occultists over whether the Abramelin working should last six months or eighteen. In the heat of this debate, it has been overlooked how Aleister Crowley, having previously attained contact via the orthodox, Abramelin route, very specifically describes in John St. John (Liber 860) a different style of attaining the very same result – but in a mere twelve days.
Knowing that this was possible prevented me from losing hope that my HGA would appear in time. The sigil and the three knocks were signs he was coming. Performing the Bornless Rite three times daily seemed like overkill. One evening, two colleagues expressed an interest in seeing the ritual. “It’s just a middle-aged bloke saying things,” I warned them. Sometimes the atmosphere in the woods seemed altered by the words into expectancy and presence. But often, nothing special happened.
After the three of us had attended the ritual, at dinner we noticed an unusual rainbow cloud near the southern horizon. It is the duty of the magician to interpret everything as a message from God to his or her soul. A rainbow, of course, is the classic symbol of hope, of the covenant between heaven and earth, so I took it as another sure-fire signal of my angel’s arrival.
Yet the problem remained that, because of my meltdown near the start, I hadn’t achieved the level of concentration needed for the immersive, multi-sensory vision that I had been aiming for. Some of the others were already enjoying such experiences but, as the penultimate day of the retreat began, I was still in the “dark night” phase: I was irritable and sick of the whole thing. Part of me expected to end the retreat back where I had started, and wanted only to finish now and go back home.
In the afternoon, I sat in the woods with the sunlight on my face. I noticed that complex sigils were appearing spontaneously against the visual field. They had a yellow or yellow-green colour and seemed composed of alphanumeric characters from unknown alphabets, with woven-in fragments of geometric designs, and little glyphs resembling stylized faces and animals. It looked like a kind of mock “Aztec” writing. Each sigil arose spontaneously out of nothing, endured for a moment, then faded before it was overwritten suddenly by the next. This spectacle produced in me a feeling of endlessness and pointlessness.
I had a headache I could not shake, and kept deciding to take some pills, except the pain seemed a useful object to practise with. My concentration was shot, so I had resorted to vipassana rather than kasina, just for something to do. By then it was evening. Sitting again in the woods, I noticed the headache had gone and my ability to concentrate was back. It seemed I was in the next phase of the practice, “equanimity”. This conclusion held as I tried to “break” the newly-found state by thinking intentionally about all the upsetting things that had previously wrecked my concentration. The new state was spacious enough to allow all thoughts to come and go without being swept along with them.
Just before lunch on the final day, even as my mind filled with thoughts about the journey home and the impending return to daily life, at last the angel came. In the woods, sitting in the sun, I noticed again the “Aztec” writing, only this time I saw how each preceding sigil was not appearing suddenly, but gradually morphing from the one preceding it. Instead of the sense of pointlessness this evoked the day before, it struck me as the communication of a complex message, some intense and lengthy incantation.
In the distance a gust of wind gathered and began its approach. The treetops swayed and sighed as it sought me out and swirled the leaf litter with a spiral eddy. At my right hand, like a tall and ancient tree, a magnificent presence: vast, luminous, and sweetly fulfilling. Beautiful beyond all words. And then it dawned on me that the internal nimitta, that “circulating mass”, is the HGA.
I was looking right at it. I had been looking at it, all along. That which I had longed and hoped for, and had been participating in the practice to attain, was already here; it was the practice. There had never been anything to do for union with my angel other than turn attention to it, for there it was, always at hand.
Not in the way I had supposed, nevertheless my intention had been realised. The retreat was a success. (Except, in magick, in a sense there is never any failure, because only an understanding dependent upon causality can produce an experience of something that does not work, and this is not the understanding of a magician.)
I was not anywhere close to the standard of concentration required for a full-blown, high resolution vision, but the angel had found a way to manifest regardless. The experience was not even a “fruition”, the technical term in Buddhist vipassana meditation for the climactic, self-obliterating moment of full insight into reality. It was simply a magickal result, a synchronicity. But this was a new revelation as far as I was concerned: the love of the HGA is so great, it stoops to connect and communicate through whatever sufficient conditions the magician is capable of extending.
An intense meditation retreat was the occasion for my first panic attack. The triggers have been various, but in each episode there has been an overwhelming need to escape, yet nowhere to go, and a feeling of being completely alone.
Mindfulness therapies and techniques are currently lauded as a panacea for emotional distress, yet stories circulate of practitioners running into dangerous psychological difficulties through meditation. “An underlying psychosis” is the explanation rolled out by those with an interest in preserving the reputation of mindfulness. Meditation veterans tend to the view that run-ins with psychosis are part of the territory, more likely to be encountered the longer we explore, regardless of our baseline nuttiness.
Perhaps all spiritual practices are both a cure and a poison; they can dramatically improve mental health, but also they put it at risk.
Dante, be thou my guide
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a text operating on many levels, but fundamentally a poetic description of three spiritual realms. In Hell, the damned suffer torments from which they can never escape. Every moment is a desperate longing for relief that can never be realised. The damned are isolated in their suffering for eternity. During a panic attack, I know how this feels.
In Heaven, the blessed are perfectly fulfilled. Even though they are situated at various distances from God, their wills are aligned with God’s. The soul in Heaven furthest from God is as fulfilled as the closest, because all rejoice in divine will (“True Will”) as their own. I know that paradoxically complete fulfilment of non-dual emptiness, which is just my own paltry experience of it.
Purgatory speaks most to the spiritual practitioner. Here, souls endure torments not dissimilar from Hell, but do so willingly. Suffering operates as a penance for sins, which gains the souls entrance to Heaven. Indeed, Purgatory guarantees Heaven; it is simply a matter of time and effort.
Maybe it’s significant how Purgatory has no explicit basis in Christian scripture, but was a doctrine developed later. Given Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is a means of transition; less of an end-point, more of a methodology.
Dispelling the stench of Sunday school
To prevent anti-religious hackles from being raised, we can read these allegorical realms not in terms of “should” but “is”. The compulsion upon souls in each realm is imposed not from outside but arises from its own nature; a soul in Purgatory does not “have to” burn off its sin, but might be said to be in Purgatory if and when it does. If the word “sin” is difficult to tolerate, then “psychological issues” or “karma” will do instead.
As meditators, we endure long hours of discomfort, frustration and despair; countless dark nights in return for luminous glimpses. No one forces us to do so. The ups and downs of my spiritual practice are due to factors personal to me.
These “sins” are my own psychological issues; in actuality, I am never lost and abandoned, but something in my nature makes it seem so. The fault lies in me, even though it is not necessarily my fault. It is simply that I am the fault, although – ultimately – there really never was one. If Heaven is free of sin, then Hell is where we live out its full effects. And if something different happens in Purgatory, it’s because here we confront our issues willingly and with awareness. Spiritual practice is the atonement of sin. Whereas some atone because they think God demands it, the rest of us do it just because we know it works.
Famously, at the entrance to Hell is written: “Abandon Hope All Who Enter”. The only difference between Purgatory and Hell is the fact of an exit, and with the hope this offers in Purgatory all the horror is vanquished. What is hope, other than knowing that what we must confront will one day change?
Russell Razzaque is a psychiatrist who experienced awakening after taking up meditation. He noticed significant parallels between his own experience and that of his patients. In Breaking Down Is Waking Up he formulates a model of psychological suffering as an inversion of awakening. Whereas spiritual practice gradually dismantles the ego, in mental illness the ego reacts to psychological stress by expanding, but eventually cracks appear as the ego collapses under its own weight: “as it was not a process that was sought, planned or gradually worked towards – with any awareness of a reality beyond the ego – the experience becomes a frightening and distressing one” (Razzaque 2014: 142-3).
In the same week I was reading Razzaque, I attended a talk by Daniel Hadjiandreou, a psychologist who (admitting a tendency to take things to extremes) practised for seven hours straight a meditation technique supposed to be practised for only one minute per day. The result was a traumatic dissolving of reality that necessitated a difficult process of recovery. His talk provided a number of simple, psychological techniques to help anyone affected by experiences of “unshared reality”.
I highly recommend Razzaque’s book; it is a radical re-visioning of psychiatry in relation to spirituality, and is likely to be of practical use to anyone undergoing psychological difficulties on a spiritual path. But I do not share his view of mindfulness and meditation as necessarily beneficial. Whereas, for Razzaque, meditation was a gateway into Purgatory, for Hadjiandreou – initially, at least – it was an entrance into Hell.
Razzaque suggests a continuum between enlightenment and psychosis; Dante offers a model of three distinct realms. The advantage of Dante is an explanation for how practice is evidently not the sole determinant of experience. Mindfulness is commonly presented as universally helpful, and next in line (it seems) are psychological treatments combined with psychedelics. Yet for every person whom these assist through Purgatory and into Heaven, some will be led straight into Hell.
Forgive us our trespasses
Someone with a tendency to take things to extremes practices meditation. Discovering another reality, the current one seems totally false, and must be utterly meaningless…
Someone who grew up in an over-protective environment undergoes ego dissolution. It feels like complete abandonment and eternal separation…
Our own psychological issues filter the experience of what lies beyond ego. What comes from inside the ego can seem to be what is “real”, in which case there is no way out from it and suddenly we are in Hell. The purgatorial pledge to confront our sins has been swept away, and, with it, hope.
Whatever our practice, sometimes it plunges us deeper into Hell. Dante’s model reminds us of the importance of reference points. Maps are helpful: knowing where you are and where you are headed can sustain the purgatorial sense of an exit, the consoling knowledge that, one day, this too will pass. Also helpful are guides: through Hell and Purgatory Dante has Virgil by his side; but for navigating Heaven, only Beatrice will do. Different guides offer different perspectives, and it needs to be recognised what those perspectives are.
Psychotherapy has proved helpful for uncovering my “sins”, the issues that distort my understanding and plunge me into Hell. My therapist seems to have little appreciation of spiritual practice. She questions my self-exploration outside the therapeutic context. But she has helped me through difficult times, and I have found her insights grounding. She is more of a Virgil to me than a Beatrice; for spiritual guidance, I turn elsewhere.
What Dante offers is an unwelcome illustration of an unfashionable truth: that spiritual practice alone is insufficient. We must also atone for our sins, in the sense of recognising our own psychological stuff, a means of preventing us from mistaking it for reality. As long as we can do this, hope is preserved, and the exit into Heaven guaranteed.
Dante Alighieri (2013). The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James. London: Picador.
Razzaque, Russell (2014). Breaking Down is Waking Up: Can Psychological Suffering be a Spiritual Gateway? London: Watkins.
I am bad at taking drugs. The reasons why will become apparent. But I always wanted to try LSD, so when the opportunity arose recently, and those who had taken it reported a mellow trip, and seemed to be having a mild and lovely time, I felt that conditions were good for me to give it a try, so I gratefully received a minimum dose.
Soon after, Boffo and I performed the Headless Rite under an ancient oak. At the termination of the ritual I heard the tree exhale a long, sighing breath. Over dinner, the effects were more pronounced. There was a blissful disjoint in my belly and chest, and between my mind and its perceptions. But the disjoint expanded and I was not sure I could maintain social interactions, so I went to bed to take a closer look at what was going on.
A practitioner of vipassana meditation for decades, my instinct is to burrow into experience and analyse it to pieces, which is why I am not good at drugs. What I found was a mind like broken hardware. It was out of phase, with all the sensory modalities bleeding into each other. But what was it out of phase with? Reality itself, it seemed. This made no sense, because being out of phase was just as real an experience as any other. The upshot was I was not happy with it. I had put a chemical into my brain and screwed it up. There was nothing interesting occurring; it was only brain damage. I must wait for it to pass and enjoy the ride as best I could. There were pleasant feelings in my body, and I used these as an anchor to prevent slipping off completely into suffering.
Boffo was my saviour throughout the night. He suggested a walk, and this certainly felt easier than reflecting on experience indoors. But everything was so unintegrated there was little to hold onto. Everything was flattened out, at a distance, as if relayed from far away and taking ages to register upon awareness. After a short time I wanted to go to bed again and try to sleep.
Of course I could not sleep, and then some challenging impressions took hold. Experience was so far out of phase it did not count as experience at all. Then what was this? Some new kind of life in which none of the usual means of making sense possibly applied. The conviction took root that I was dead. The more I looked, the more clearly I perceived brittle, inert artefacts of something very far from alive. Nothing in this new experience joined up with life. Everything of me and mine was dead, and had been always. Laughable to think I had believed it any other way.
Later, a different view took hold: that awareness was excreted into reality through slimy tubes, in a sordid, sleazy way, like a penis sliding out from its foreskin. Everything was visceral, consciousness no exception, just a bodily organ like any other, but with a transparent surface so that light passed in as it was excreted through its tube. Consciousness was a transparent turd.
Boffo put on calming music: Eno, Dowland, Allegri’s Miserere. But the latter was just too agonisingly beautiful. I was transfixed by visions of vast cathedrals of cloud and radiant light.
“I’m about to get emotional,” I said.
“What are you feeling?” said Boffo.
“Anguish, I think.”
A sense had been growing from that formerly pleasant buzz in my abdomen that my body consisted purely of vibrations. My thighs, belly and chest had ceased to be physical and were instead a buzzing swirl of energy about certain points which, I realised, were the chakras.
The anguish was swirling and swirling about my heart. Boffo snapped into energy worker mode and helped try and move the energy upwards and out. That seemed to clear it somewhat, but then the energy re-focused in my belly and thighs where it felt even more solid. The energy seemed inexhaustible, only indirectly physical, as if it were passing through my body rather than belonging to it, but instead of passing through and on its way the energy seemed to be snagging somehow upon the physical. I was writhing, spasming, grunting and groaning in a way I had not felt before, as if there was something stuck in swadisthana (just below the belly button) that needed to come out. But how could it come out, if my body were physical yet the energy flowing through me were not?
The writhing spasms seemed to offer some relief. Boffo was helping, as before. There was one great moment of spasm, and it seemed it might all be over, but then it became apparent the crisis was coming in cycles or waves, and another bout of writhing built up all over again.
I was not sure that what was in me was entirely me, but instead something I would very much like to expel, and the means of expulsion seemed to be to afford it some means of expression, as if this could expose it to a light that prevented it from operating in secret. I sensed that it very much disliked this and wanted to remain hidden. Repeatedly, I took my awareness down through the chakras, passing my right hand side-on down my body. All the upper chakras seemed fine, but each time my awareness and my hand reached swadisthana, I hit something that made me buck and spasm. At one point I bent back hard on the bed, uncontrollably gurgling and hissing, words forming in a nonsensical guttural language, a demonic voice.
It did not feel at all that this was part of me, yet I was aware of what was happening, and afterwards I remembered it all. Humour was also still in operation, because as Boffo laid his hand upon me, steeling against more demonic writhing, I grinned and quoted from The Exorcist: “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”
The vivid perception of circulating vibrations gradually subsided. My body was physically trembling now in the areas affected; the transition from etheric to material seemed to promise that reality might settle down. Sleep seemed a possibility. Boffo was facing a long drive early next morning. I was acutely aware he needed rest. I had apologised to him earlier. I think that part of me had calculated I was safe in Boffo’s company, and had staged unconsciously this whole thing.
Whilst Boffo caught some fitful sleep, I lay awake, perturbed by my frantic heartrate and struggling to ignore intermittent thoughts that cardiac arrest was imminent. I was lying in bed, but my physiology was on a long-distance run. Later, Boffo assured me that as I was not hyperventilating, I would probably be okay. I consoled myself a kundalini crisis was also a highly efficient way to burn off excess calories.
The next day, Boffo headed home and I spent the quiet day doing grounding things: eating, sleeping, masturbating and chores. I felt fragile but wired, and resolved never to touch acid again without a solid reason. I have no conception what that reason would be.
Contrary to appearances, the crisis was not over. A few days passed normally. I returned home and resumed my usual low-key practices of meditation and yoga. I was reunited with my girlfriend. It had been our first time apart, and we made it up with lots of sex, without ejaculation on my part. (For more on this, Dave Lee has written recently on the aims and benefits of tantric sexual practice from a chaos magickal perspective [Lee 2017: 258-264].)
The following weekend, it crept up slowly, but by evening I felt exactly as I had under the influence of LSD. There was the same sensation of mental brokenness, the visuals and scents, and frightening, delusional thoughts: you have a brain tumour… you are going mad… The vibrations and demonic writhing returned but I forced them into abeyance, because, although Boffo took them in his stride, I could see my girlfriend found them more distressing.
I made an internet search for help, which turned up the work of Tara Springett, a psychotherapist specialising in clients with kundalini syndrome. Her book, Enlightenment Through the Path of Kundalini, available in PDF format for a few pounds, offers advice on dealing with kundalini symptoms. At first, I approached it with caution, because Springett avers the theoretical portions of her text were channelled from the goddess White Tara. Yet White Tara chimed entirely with my own practice and experience, and Springett’s book proved a lifesaver. My opinion is that Springett’s manifestation of White Tara is extremely useful.
Springett views kundalini as a bodily energy that sets itself apart from the non-dual love that permeates the universe. Ultimately, therefore, kundalini is an expression of universal love, but it is also an expression of an individual self. The antidote to an excess of kundalini, then, is love and compassion towards self, others and divinity.
In marked contrast to other writers, Springett asserts that kundalini syndrome is amenable to psychotherapeutic intervention, and that energy work or bodily intervention is actually likely to exacerbate the problem. This is because kundalini is not a material entity or energy. As she puts it, “this sensation of energy ‘rising’ is not real. It is just a sensation that happens spontaneously […] and therefore we should refrain from trying to manufacture this experience” (Springett 2014: 105). Likewise, practices such as pranayama, samatha and vipassana will tend to exacerbate kundalini episodes, because they supply increased attention. The only practice likely to dampen and re-balance is compassion.
This I started, and immediately the kundalini responded. The experience of kundalini is love, so generating love outwards provides a deeper relaxation into love. Trying to take love apart through introspection (vipassana), or attempting to eject it somehow from the body (demonic phenomena), accomplishes nothing. It is stupid to want or attempt to dismantle love.
I walked in the cemetery, and in the quietness practised this, and felt much better, far less insane. On the way home I noticed an intense pang of sadness. My body felt oddly heavy as I walked.
Springett recommends surrender to a divinity. Given that this whole experience was consequent upon a Kali puja that Boffo and I had performed, I visualised lying in the loving arms of the goddess, surrendering in compassion to her and to the world. My state of mind still felt too much, but the kundalini loosened in response to the love. A thought arose: “If things aren’t normal, it’s only because I am different from before. Things are not the same because now I am Kali’s.”
A strong vision of the goddess immediately arose. She was in the room, a giant, oblong column dense with qualities; some I knew, but much else was unknown. My mind was hers; her being was mine. It was clear from that moment how we were entirely merged. She gave me a mantra, mine to use. (“It’s not quite Sanskrit, is it?” I remarked later, showing it to Boffo. “Sounds more likely bloody Aztec to me!” Boffo quipped.)
Still too intense, at least now I recognised my state for what it had been all along: merger with the goddess, which I had desperately been trying to fend off and deny. My sufferings were actually bliss. My body was actually suffused with ecstasy. The terror occasioned by clinging to normality decreased at once on realising there was no way back, no benefit in retreating.
Monday, I was in ecstasy. At work, it was fine whilst tackling the usual tasks. I was not entirely convinced that intellectually I was up to scratch, but things seemed to get done. Solitary bliss is one thing; in the presence of others it becomes more taxing. “Today my whole being is so sweetly reeling / with Mother’s own drunken love”, wrote the eighteenth century poet Ramprasad in one of his many hymns to Kali, “that even those soaked in ordinary wine / consider me one of them!” (Hixon 1994: 67) And, surely, the others in the meeting could see I was completely off my tits! A sense of paranoia crept in, and then, consequently, a wish to break free from all the everyday aspects of my life. The basis of suffering is feeling unable to accept the state one is in. But by trying to let things be as they are, by practising compassion, I managed to pull through.
Since then, three weeks later, things have settled. This was the only spiritual experience in which I found myself, rather than clinging onto the states of mind involved, instead looking forward to when they would pass. But once they had, inevitably I hankered and experimented with practices that might top it up again. Tantric sex, connected breathwork, meditation and yoga, in descending order, all seemed capable of stimulating the kundalini, but not in any simple or predictable way.
Perhaps the most confusing thing has been occasionally to find myself in states of bliss when things that are otherwise unpleasant and uncomfortable are happening. I wonder what horrible kind of person I must be to have a capacity for pleasure in the presence of my own and others’ suffering. Yet the bliss does not arise from or because of the suffering.
Perhaps Ramprasad should have the final word: “Mother dwells at the center of my being, / forever delightfully at play. / Whatever conditions of consciousness may arise, / I hear through them the music of her life-giving names, / Om Tara, Om Kali” (Hixon 1994: 37).
Hixon, Lex (1994). Mother of the Universe: Visions of the Goddess and Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment. Wheaton, IL: Quest.
Lee, Dave (2017). Life Force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic. Norwich: Universe Machine.
Springett, Tara (2014). Enlightenment through the Path of Kundalini: a Guide to a Positive Spiritual Awakening and Overcoming Kundalini Syndrome. taraspringett.com
The classic iconography of Kali: a four-armed goddess, with two hands making mudras for protection and blessings; one hand wielding a sentient blade; and from the other, hanging suspended by its hair and dripping blood, the freshly chopped-off head of the king of demons. Dark-skinned, bare-breasted, with a lolling tongue, Kali wears a skirt of amputated limbs and a garland of severed heads. She tramples the prostrate body of her consort, Shiva, her foot upon his heart chakra. In contrast to her ferocity is Shiva’s bliss. This image speaks to me of the character of sensate reality, and our relationship to it as material beings. It codifies, in essence, the tantrika’s mode of being.
Kali entered my life during a morning meditation. I am the ocean of blood at the beginning and end of the universe, she said. You will perform daily pujas and learn the techniques of tantric sex. I did as I was told, without understanding why or where it was leading until, a few months later, my father unexpectedly died. It felt as if Kali equipped me with the means to cope with that ordeal. When reality wears its Kali-face, it’s time to do as Shiva does.
When, recently, Kali appeared once more, demanding puja, I was not overjoyed but fearful. Soon afterwards, my mother’s health failed. I thought maybe I could see where this was headed. But then, to vast relief, my mother recovered.
It was not clear what Kali wanted me to do. In a gift shop, a notebook bearing her image caught my attention. I bought it, and put it away. But at the back of my mind the idea grew that it ought to contain a message from the goddess. I needed a way for this to appear without me writing it. So I cut up newspapers and magazines. Any phrase that fetched attention was clipped and cast onto a pile, re-arranged, until it seemed sentences were forming. Images suggested themselves as accompaniments to the text, pictures of death and sexuality, perversities and atrocities. Sourcing these has no doubt permanently marred my search history.
Each page of the notebook was stained by hand with ink, and the pictures and phrases glued on top. A portion of the text arrived during a ritual at one of the regular meetings between Boffo and I. Each page consumed hours of labour. At last, Liber Kali was complete. Yet its purpose seemed more than to lie forgotten at the bottom of my box of notebooks. Boffo and I brought it to a large magickal gathering and made it the basis of a ceremony entitled The Kali Hypno Puja.
The statement of intent was that all participants, to their benefit, would receive a communication from Kali. Boffo, who is a mighty purveyor of trance, placed the whole room under hypnosis, then provided a quiet and lilting drum accompaniment to my reading of the text.
Be warned that Liber Kali contains pornographic images, and pictures of human suffering and violent death. A digital copy is included here [PDF, 2MB], and, should you read it, you might discover that it’s not a typical hymn of praise. Constructed from snippets of current media, traces of the zeitgeist are inescapable. Its opening lines are a plaintive cry to the goddess, but what develops thereafter is perhaps a devotee’s personal train of enquiry towards salvation. Or perhaps you will read it as something else entirely, because hopefully there is adequate ambiguity to inspire in everyone something completely unique.
The results of our hypno puja were certainly diverse. One person remembered no words of the text at all, but only the sensation of a hand stroking her face, and then embracement in a multitude of loving arms. Others reported visions of Kali at varying levels of intensity, one person moved to tears on recounting his. And the remainder reported milder phenomena, such as simply the feeling that something good was bound to happen.
My personal result from the ritual is what I shall explore in my next sermon.
The mathematics professor was closing his lecture with questions and answers. He was asking the questions, French accent, chalk in hand.
“Tell me how do you imagine a vector space before your mind’s eyes?”
Lenny raised a hand, the prof found him. A nod in his direction, “yes?”
“Like a dough. You can stretch and pull it”.
The professor considered this for a moment, then made an impatient gesture.
“No, that is not enough. No. No, a vector space is not like a dough at all! You are speaking like the washerwomen at the market. You must learn to speak like a nobleman!”
Snorts and giggles, quiet expressions of disbelief. The professor was known to be eccentic, but not to bizarre extremes like this.
Another student answered the question satisfactorily.
In the slanting afternoon light, a sprawl of students on the main stairs. Cool air and warm light on our faces. Someone exhaled a long plume of smoke into the sky. Elbows back on the steps, I closed my eyes at the sun, red veins brilliant across my field of vision.
Discussions about the professor’s strange tirade. Lenny’s voice, “He has a medieval mindset! Noblemen and washerwomen!”
Someone else’s voice. “But aren’t you into magic yourself, Lenny? You were telling us yesterday -”
Back and forth. Lenny explained his views about magic in the modern world, quantum effects and a conscious substrate of reality made up large parts of his model.
Heavy steps shuffling up the stairs nearby, the cold of the stone steps at my elbows. Motor noise from below.
“So you people are looking for a flatmate?”
Cigarette smoke laced with herbal scents, the sound of a bicycle switching gears.
“Bea, are you looking for a flatmate?”
I opened my eyes. Lenny, long eyelashes, gaze lowered at my chest. I sat up and he looked away.
“Yes, want to see? Josh will be in later, but you should meet him, too.”
On our way from the university to the flat, we passed through a section of the old town. Lenny talked about magic, describing a medieval ritual he had read about, but which he would never try because it involved an animal sacrifice, of a black cat, apparently.
I was pushing my bicycle over the cobbled streets, he was walking along, gesturing and explaining. When we arrived, I swung open the little cast iron gate and led the way past the overgrown garden and the bicycle shed.
Lenny nodded with an approving air at what he saw. We entered the house and ascended the creaking stairs. Evening sunlight filtered through the colourful glass windows of the stairwell, painting our faces yellow and red. We reached the landing and I opened the flat’s doors.
“To the right is my room, and Josh’s. Here is the kitchen. Would you like some orange juice?” He stood closely behind me as I poured our drinks and we took them to the kitchen window overlooking the shadows of the little courtyard behind the house. There were a few folded garden chairs and a soggy cardboard box with pots and other gardening equipment on the balcony outside the kitchen.
“Sometimes we get foxes trying to loot the trash cans in the courtyard. They even fought one night, maybe a cat or a badger or something, very noisy.” Lenny showed some interest in the wildlife, and we discussed urban foxes as I led him out into the hall and to the vacant room.
“Sue used to live here. She’s moved out of town, to Italy, so we’re looking for a new flat mate. How do you like it? She will pick up the boxes next week – ” I gestured at a stack of boxes next to the door.
Lenny went to the window overlooking the old city below. “Nice view!” he remarked. I told him about the rent, he had no questions about it. “Let me show you the living room,” I said, walking out.
In the center of the living room there stood a large wooden frame. Thin wires criss-crossed the wedge of space spanned by the frame, and delicately glazed ceramic discs were suspended on them. The discs were in motion from the draught through the open window, spinning and touching the strings and wires, generating scratching and humming noises.
Lenny was captivated by the mobile. “What is this?”
“It’s full of vectors, isn’t it?” I teased him. “Josh will be able to explain it better. He is into magic, like you are.” I paused, but Lenny did not launch into one of his lectures. “Anyway, Josh says it is an entire cosmos of worlds and when he needs energy or whatever for his magic, he stops one of the discs. He says it is always the end of a world when he does that. He gets really upset when someone else touches it.”
Lenny had been leaning closer to the sculpture, hand extended towards one of the spinning, humming slivers of ceramic, but he backed away now, eyes wide. “What does Josh do? I mean, is he a student?” he asked.
“Biology,” I nodded. “He is in one of the labs where they do vivisection. He has this method of dissecting a mouse where he first fixes it to a board” – I made a cruciform with my arms to illustrate – “and then injects formaldehyde into a major blood vessel. That way, the heart circulates the formaldehyde … I think it’s horrible, too. But he once told me he gets power from that as well.”
I laughed at Lennys expression. “No, really. Josh is nice! Just don’t talk to him when he comes home before he has a chance to stop the mobile. He is much more relaxed when he can do that.”
Steps and the sounds of the door opening. I called a hello to Josh, who muttered something as he came into the living room. His long, thin hair was hangig in strands to his shoulders, and his broad face seemed slack and tired. He wore a black t-shirt with a band’s name in grotesquely overdone gothic lettering.
I did not speak, and neither did Lenny. After pausing and giving us a look for a moment, he held the biggest disc with the fingers of his left hand, until the mobile quieted down. Then he nodded at us and left wordlessly. Lenny had not moved. After a few moments, running water and the sounds of drops on a shower curtain could be heard through the hallway.
“He’ll be more talkative after taking a shower!” I beamed at Lenny. “Do you want to stay? It’s going to be pizza, I’m afraid.”
But Lenny was leaving, saying some vague things about letting me know. I let him out.
As we were putting our pizzas in the oven, Josh asked, “So who was that just now? Didn’t even want to say hello?”
I shrugged. “Lenny. Looking for a room. From the Algebra course.”
“You know I’m not big on conventions, but not saying hello is a red light. I get enough of that kind of attitude in the computer science lab all day, I don’t want it all evening as well.”
“He is a bit strange, but we need to find someone for Susan’s room.” I set the alarm for the pizzas.
Josh shook his head. “We will find someone else a bit higher on the social aptitude scale. Speaking of social aptitude, when is Susan going to get her stuff? That mobile is driving me insane! Can’t we just put it out on the balcony?”