Gabriel is an Ancient of Days, seated roughly at the Merkabah’s left-hand liminal edge, caught in an aeon-spanning threesome with The Lady Sophia and Baphomet. Situating his Khabs firmly in his Khu, Gabriel prefers spirit-bothering magicks that mix transcendence with the mundane.
If I was the most important element of the landscape, if everything revolved around me, then the growth of blanket weed in the canal, the fading paint on the narrowboats and the additions of graffiti on the underpass would have been measured to quantify my absence. The St. George flags on the new canalside apartments would be there to celebrate my slain dragon. But none of these things were the case so we were free to just walk and notice: meadows visible through the hedges; a heron, with a whole fish in its neck; features of rail and canal architecture collapsing into the natural environment; empty chairs at the back of a factory. (Bayfield 2016: 22)
I admire the way he combines magick, art and spirituality. The book is a nexus of all three. This passage shows how he achieves it: a delicious letting-go of any sensible, central I.
It is because none of us is at the centre that we really are free. Things are never more themselves when unmeasured in relation to us. Letting drop the urge to find ourselves in everything is a hallmark not just of psychological maturity, good poetry, and meditative practice, but also – evidently – of Bayfield’s unique flavour of psychogeography.
Accompanying him in his enchantments of meaning from space and place is a vicarious and intense magickal pleasure.
It began with a dream, of standing with a woman at twilight on a grassy bank. Beneath us, a cold black river flowed. The grass and foliage were wet and the water looked icy. The light was fading fast. Although the woman looked like no one I could name, there was a sense she was my mother. There was also a feeling I was in a sexual relationship with her.
Without warning she jumped from the bank and entered the water with hardly a ripple. A few bubbles floated up. She was safely beneath, holding her breath. I wondered how she could survive such a plunge and remain beneath the water. The thought came that I should do the same, but I knew there was no chance I would survive.
I started to come awake slowly, then, and although I did not see this in the dream, there was an overwhelming feeling I had jumped. I felt I could not breathe. The realisation broke that I was drowning and, indeed, that I had drowned.
Afterwards, I could not easily discern whether the woman was a symbol, or a spirit with an intentionality all her own (an undine, maybe, or a lorelei) or perhaps a shadow aspect of myself.
To decide how to read her, it seemed that a ritual was required.
First, I made a drawing of some impressions from the dream, simply to create an image that might connect me to her. Next I made a simple sigil, which I placed inside a luminous plastic glove purchased from a novelty shop. Our statement of intent: It is our will that the woman from Gabriel’s dream will be evoked into this glove, and only into this glove, so that she might communicate with us through the medium of drawing and writing.
Boffo was on hand to place me under an hypnotic trance. Contrary to appearance, Boffo is very proficient; he also made a video record of the proceedings.
Deep in trance, the glove glowing eerily in the dark, the entity took up marker pens and over the next half hour produced seven sheets of marks and messages. Immediately after, we were no clearer on her nature, but the ritual had limited whatever she was conveniently to the glove, and – having given the entity license to depart – this we happily disposed of in the waste-paper bin, banishing thoroughly afterwards.
I AM YOUR CHILD IN YOU. FALL FOREVER DOWN INTO THE WORLD WITH ME FOR I AM NOT OF IT AND WILL NOT FILL THE WATERS OF YOUR HEART.
YOU LIVE IN ME HERE. I AM THE GIRL THAT SWAM IN WATERS. ME, THE MOST TERRIBLE LIAR OF LIFE IN YOU.
THE CAPTURE WILL WITHSTAND THE NIGHT INTO URNS AND WATERS. FOR NIGHT IS THE ONLY ASPECT OF WHAT MAY FOLLOW SOON ON THE HEELS OF TIME. FOR NIGHT AND OVERSPREADING NIGHT: THIS IS ONLY WHAT MAY BE.
THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT YOU FEEL ME IN YOU. I AM GOING. YOU WILL FEEL INTO ME THE LOVELY SILENCE.
Impressions from the dream.
Sigil inside the luminous glove.
1. A self portrait?
2. Mostly indecipherable.
3. I AM YOUR CHILD IN YOU. FALL FOREVER DOWN INTO THE WORLD WITH ME FOR I AM NOT OF IT AND WILL NOT FILL THE WATERS OF YOUR HEART.
4. YOU LIVE IN ME HERE. I AM THE GIRL THAT SWAM IN WATERS. ME, THE MOST TERRIBLE LIAR OF LIFE IN YOU.
5. THE CAPTURE WILL WITHSTAND THE NIGHT INTO URNS AND WATERS.
6. FOR NIGHT IS THE ONLY ASPECT OF WHAT MAY FOLLOW SOON ON THE HEELS OF TIME. FOR NIGHT AND OVERSPREADING NIGHT. THIS IS ONLY WHAT MAY BE.
7. THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT YOU FEEL ME IN YOU. I AM GOING. YOU WILL FEEL INTO ME THE LOVELY SILENCE.
The deciding factor in determining her nature proved not to be the contents of her messages, but rather what happened further to the ritual, because another dream came that night.
There was a sense that I worked on a team producing foodstuffs, into which I was putting offal from human corpses. I knew this was wrong, but it was the easiest thing to do, and the only method I knew. I had neither the knowledge or skill required to do the job properly. The company and my colleagues all turned a blind eye to what I was doing, but I woke with a sense of having put something filthy and defiling out into the world.
But then, getting up from this dream to meditate at the foot of the bed, a goddess appeared. She was a woman of about 30 years of age, bald-headed, with a vivid gaze that froze my mind in an overwhelming impression of pure sentience that felt neither mine nor hers. There were no words. It was as if her gaze were unmoving, inescapable, because her gaze was my gaze, and each was arising mutually from the other, both entwined inseparably in each and by this means enduring to the end of time.
I realised that the woman in the first dream had been a shadow aspect of Self, which the ptomaine-like poisons of my mind had prevented me from seeing clearly, until the second dream enacted their ejection into the world.
The immorality of my actions in the dream symbolised what might be seen as a crime against Self, but the dream itself was an atonement for this. What initially could express itself only in symbolic terms of sex, motherhood and drowning was then able to appear in a less dualistic form.
The entity addresses her own distorted appearance in the description of herself as: ‘the most terrible liar of life in you’. She states explicitly that she is not of the world, and that even though ‘you live in me here’, yet ‘I am your child in you’; or, in other words, we each mutually give rise to the other. In the rest of what she says, ‘night’ seems to refer to my ignorance of what she really is, and ‘water’ is our mutual immersion in each other, which was my drowning in the first dream. The reference to ‘urns’, in which human remains are interred, is an interesting prefiguration of the second dream: she seems to be saying that images of corpses and drowning are displays of ignorance (‘night’), yet also the means (‘capture’) by which ignorance can be bypassed. And the last line of her farewell is an explicit prediction of the meditation vision: ‘You will feel into me the lovely silence.’
Gordon White is now a major influence within chaos magick. I recently finished reading his latest book, The Chaos Protocols: Magical Technicques for Navigating the New Economic Reality.
It does not happen often, but I was offended by this book. Most of all, by the part where White presents a version of The Bornless Ritual (cannily retitled ‘The Headless Rite’.)
I have no problems with the ritual. However, White suggests that, consequent to its performance, “family-owned houses have sold for over a million dollars” and “I have had […] job offers from out of the blue without even an interview, from the world’s most desirable company” (White 2016: 72).
In western magick, the Bornless Ritual has been used to protect Goetic magickians from harm. It has also been employed to invoke the “holy guardian angel”. But White appears to regard it as a suitable vehicle for wealth magick (73).
There was much in the book I found inspiring, particularly the analysis of the world economic situation. But, despite admiring White’s genuinely devastating portrayal of how ‘the rules of this world were simply not built for your benefit’ (6), I deplore his proposed solution. And I have been puzzling ever since over the offence that this style of chaos magick provokes in me.
Offence stems generally from holding beliefs too rigidly. So what justification have I, as a supposedly belief-shifting chaos magickian, admitting to an experience of offence? I hold the view that the importance we place on the results of our magick reveals something about our nature. Yet White regards as a “dangerous illusion” (54) the perspective that magick is a teleological or developmental process. His view is that we do not and cannot know what we really want (our ‘True Will’) because no such thing exists.
Despite forgoing the notion of will, this seems a fundamentally Nietzschean moral outlook. It is indeed an enlivening critique of the sadly compliant muggle who assumes the good life is attained merely from obeying societal rules. However, “the life’s work of a chaos magician”, concludes White, is “fine-tuning probabilistic dials for fun and profit” (136), which (to anyone who has seen The Wolf of Wall Street) might sound more like a memoir of a stockbroker than a mage.
White assumes a disparity of wealth between himself and his reader. “[Y]ou would not be reading this book because you would already be wealthy”, he jibes at one point, although he credits that I might “be reading it on the deck of your super-yacht in Croatia” (135). In the course of dispensing further careers advice, he proffers: “which option has even the tiniest chance of you owning a network of old folks homes and retiring to a private island?” (165), as if this were a self-evidently laudable aim.
Is this really a book about chaos magick? Maybe it is, because White’s tone perhaps reminds us of the kind of political opinions that Peter Carroll frequently expresses on his blog. (Carroll must despair of the leftist, socially-conscious and wealth-indifferent folk who – in my experience – form the majority of those involved in the contemporary chaos current.) Yet, unlike Carroll, White seems a little uncomfortable with his own views. At one point he laments: “no one explains to you how difficult it is to demonstrate enough personal success to justify taking up the reader’s time without sounding like an appalling person in the process” (179).
Maybe this was an insight that should have given him greater pause for thought because, evidently, like most, White wants to be a good person. To be seen as good implies that goodness is indeed something that others recognise and share. “[T]he fundamental form of human relationship”, writes Alasdair MacIntyre, following Aristotle, “is in terms of shared goods. The egoist is […] always someone who has made a fundamental mistake about where his own good lies and someone who has thus and to that extent excluded himself from human relationships” (MacIntyre 1985: 229).
One of the most pernicious effects of globalised capitalism is its atomisation of society. Whatever the latest technology, convenience or working practice, it seems always at the expense of human relationships. White wants to dance his own dance, and yet it seems to be very much to capitalism’s tune.
White strongly advises the magickian to uproot from his or her community and follow the money: “Refusing to move is taking the position that you will make do with the reduced or entirely absent opportunities in the area where you currently live” (White 2016: 163). Rather than finding ways to develop honest and direct relationships with others (and with ourselves), he advises: “you will need to be very good at compartmentalisation” (169), and to deal with the psychological consequences of this alienation: “If you want to complain about people, get a therapist” (169). While some might regard this as the chaos magickian bucking the system, it looks suspiciously to me like self-centred quietism. I can hear capitalism laughing at us… Or, at least, I think it is capitalism that I hear…
White’s fundamental egotistical mistake is perhaps due to the underlying magickal model he adopts in the book: the deal with the devil (or trickster). “You will get nowhere in magic or in life”, he suggests, “without a robust relationship with the Lord of the Crossroads” (106). Yet, ever since Doctor Faustus, it is clear that anyone who enters into such a deal loses their soul. As in goetic workings, where the magickian expects to be screwed if the spirits are given leeway, so the signatory of the midnight crossroads pact must recognise that their soul is necessarily forfeit. This is simply the consequence of entering into that magickal model.
But I suspect that, in his rejection of the concept of “True Will”, White assumes he has no soul in the first place to lose. However, this exempts no one from the conditions of that magickal model. This is the error, I think, that accounts for the ethical vacuity of The Chaos Protocols, despite its perspicacity in so many other respects.
Either White assumes that his soul is not worth saving, or by assuming he has none to lose he is attempting playing a trick on the trickster, and in the process identifying with that from which he hoped to extract a bargain. But in this way he simply swindles himself; he ends up doing the devil’s work, instead of the devil doing his.
This was the source of my offence, I realised: the lack of importance placed on the development of the soul. If that really plays no part in chaos magick, then neither can I.
MacIntyre, Alasdair (1985). After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory. Second edition. London: Duckworth.
White, Gordon (2016). The Chaos Protocols: Magical Techniques for Navigating the New Economic Reality. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Jung understood the rise of Nazism in terms of the emergence of an archetype: the god Wotan (Jung 1970).
At a seminar where this was discussed a skeptical participant enquired, “If Wotan was responsible then where was he?”
“He was simply in the air at that time, in the landscape, the rivers, the trees,” another participant answered.
“But the trees and rivers didn’t join the Nazi party,” the skeptic rejoined.
The skeptic’s error is to suppose that archetypes provide a causal explanation. Of course, they do not. But they may illuminate the reasons for events, because whereas causes reside in material reality, reasons lie within the reality of human understanding.
What can offer a more convenient means for apprehending huge-scale shifts in behaviours and attitudes than the notion of a god? So in this sense, I propose, we are in the grip of an archetype at least as strong and malevolent as Wotan. Presently we are governed by the acolytes and ideology of Cronos, that baleful deity who passes also by the name Saturn, and his associated images of Old Father Time and the Grim Reaper.
Cronos was the son of the first god, Uranus, himself the son of Chaos and Mother Earth. The first distinctive act of Cronos was to depose his father by castrating him. Yet after assuming power it was prophesied that Cronos would also be deposed by his son. To maintain his position, Cronos ate his children as soon as they were born. The tactic served him well until the birth of Zeus, for whom a stone was substituted that Cronos unwittingly ate instead. Zeus was raised in secret and, when fully grown, administered a potion to Cronos that made him vomit up all the brothers and sisters he had swallowed.
Perhaps there is a specific prophecy in the version of the myth penned by Robert Graves, wherein Cronos and his supporters are “banished to a British island in the farthest west” (Graves 1992: 40). The enduring presence of Cronos in this part of the world might account (non-causally) for why we live in times of such acute anxiety regarding those who prey upon children.
Prominent politicians and figures in the entertainment industry have been exposed as prolific abusers of children. We are tormented by a suspicion that this abuse could be endemic, perhaps institutionalised within the highest strata of our society. Yet the serial resignations of the Chairs of the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2016), the non-government enquiry set up to investigate these claims, suggests also a curious powerlessness to expose the truth.
Additionally, our economy perpetuates exploitation of the young (Elliott 2016). They have lost the free access to education and stable employment enjoyed by older generations, who – whilst living ever longer – augment their share of wealth at the younger generation’s expense.
The distinguishing trait of Cronos is his grip on the present by retarding and denying both life and power to whatever might dare to succeed him. We see this attitude also in corporations that cling to profits even whilst cognizant of the harm they do, and even when in possession of means to act more benevolently. The manufacturers of excessively sugary foods are acolytes of Cronos. So too, the fracking industry, which clings to fossil-fuels, denying the ascendancy of renewable energy sources.
There is justification for conservation of the current good. Sustaining the present can provide stability and peace. But Cronos personifies how this slips into tyranny when the ruling order perpetuates itself purely on the basis that that is what it is. No longer is this conservation, but instead the prevention of the future from being born.
The gods interact with but transcend the psychological realm. The machinations of Cronos are visible in the economy, politics and culture. Yet Cronos is what he is, and is not any of the manifestations of himself. We cannot ask why Cronos is this way, because in the nature of a god is no gap, unlike the gap that intervenes in human experience between our consciousness and nature.
Cronos simply is, but for a human being to become his acolyte requires an alienation from nature, one that supplants the protection and honouring of our future and offspring with a desire to despoil, exploit and limit. Cronos is pervasive because he slips easily into the consensus. We assume there must be good reasons for things being the way they are. The way things are is what feels normal. But what if the reasons for normality are really not good ones at all? If only a few reap the full benefit from things the way they are, can that be a good reason? If not, then what is normal is irrational and sick. The myth of Cronos is the violence and madness that can come to underpin the semblance of normality.
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas was the first to identify what he called ‘normotic’ illness, which “is typified by the numbing and eventual erasure of subjectivity in favour of a self that is conceived as a material object among other man-made products in the object world” (Bollas 1987: 135). Such a person is “someone who is abnormally normal. He is too stable, secure, comfortable and socially extrovert. He is fundamentally disinterested in subjective life” (136). The normotic personality “is alive in a world of meaningless plenty” (137).
The normotic is an acolyte of Cronos because his flight from nature, from his soul, is underpinned by the dominant discourse, materialism, which avers that we are exclusively physical organisms, separately adrift in a meaningless universe. This is considered a normal way of looking at life. But no one could give this idea credence, and it would not have required the acumen of Bollas to sniff out the normotic’s pathology, were it not for the fact that so many already believe in and shore up this view.
Cronos’s dead hand is evident also in Bollas’s account of how a normotic individual is created by a parent systematically disowning the subjective, imaginative nature of their child. Where this succeeds it is because both parties are disposed to becoming normotic, which causes Bollas to speculate whether “the child’s disposition to be emptied of self reflects his own death drive” (143). The death drive is a nebulous and controversial notion. An understanding of it might be gained from looking up the meaning of Saturn in western occultism (U∴D∴ 2005: 114) just as much as from reading Freud. But, in any case, Bollas describes how: “Parent and child organize a foreclosure of human mentality. They find a certain intimacy in shutting down life together” (143).
The creation of a normotic individual entails a type of abuse that hides its perversion behind a guise of normality. The normotic parent creates a normotic child by taking Cronos as a role model and consuming the child’s soul before that soul can be born. Bollas remarks how: “It is indeed striking how this [normotic] person seems to be unborn. It is as if the final stages of psychological birth were not achieved and one is left with a deficiency [… in] that originating subjectivity which informs our use of the symbolic” (140-1). Without either soul or the capacity to use symbols, the normotic becomes the antithesis of a practitioner of magick.
Sermons to the Unborn was a title that sprang fully-formed from the mind of Bonhomme. At the time it sounded right, but I feel I am only now beginning to understand why. Our sermons on this blog are addressed to the unborn, the acolytes of Cronos. And our impossible mission is to preach to those least equipped to hear.
Bollas, C. (1987). The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London: Free Association Books.
In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and – consequently – our bodies disconnected from the natural world.
The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.
When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: “the larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system” (1997: 101). Consequently,
our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)
Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. “Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words” (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as “Justice” always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet “Socrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itself” (1997: 111), and so we arrive – via Plato – at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.
Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.
If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.
However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names “the autistic-contiguous position”:
Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin “molding” are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)
The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: “have nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infant” (2004: 35).
Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is “preparatory for the creation of symbols” (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming “entrapped in sensory experience” (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of “autism”, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential “bounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experience” (2004: 45), “the beginnings of qualities of who one is” (2004: 54).
For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this “autism”, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.
Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. “If our primordial experience is inherently animistic,” he wonders, “how can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?” (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a “position” (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.
Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.
Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.
“The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) is a supernatural tale of suspense written by W.W. Jacobs. And monkeyspawed is a slang-term I’ve heard, used by magickians to describe a particular way in which magick can rebound.
For instance, Boffo and I monkeyspawed ourselves handsomely in a recent working. I had been suffering from recurrent headaches and devised a ritual to balance my ajna chakra. Boffo was assisting, so I broadened the intention to include him. “It is our will,” we declared at the beginning of the ritual, “to balance our ajna chakras”.
It was a couple of weeks, and required the acumen of a third party, before we arrived at an explanation of the puzzling outcome of the working, because, the next day, I had my usual headache (although not quite as bad as usual) and Boffo had one as well. So we had indeed “balanced” our ajna chakras, in the sense that Boffo’s ajna chakra had been rendered as equally fucked-up as mine.
The paw in Jacobs’ tale is a dried-up talisman with the power to grant three wishes, but it has left a trail of unhappiness. Its magick, we are informed, comes from a holy fakir who placed a spell upon it because: “He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow”. The hero of the tale, Mr. White, wishes for some cash to pay off his mortgage, only to receive the sum he requested as compensation for his son’s death in an industrial accident. Distraught with grief, Mrs. White persuades her husband to wish for the return of their son, and later that night knocking is heard at their door. Mr. White identified their son’s body, saw how badly mutilated he was by the accident, and can’t prevent himself from thinking how being buried for the past ten days might not have improved matters. And so White deploys the remaining wish, just as his wife flings open the door and – to Mr. White’s relief – discovers no one is there: “A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery…”
However, the lesson of “The Monkey’s Paw” cannot be simply that magick is evil or inevitably produces harm, because the fakir who made the spell is described as “a very holy man”, and his magick (unlike White’s) is successful in realising its purpose. Yet the demonstration of the fakir’s teaching is made at the expense of others who fail to see in advance that by using the paw and asserting their own desire, they are in fact subjecting themselves to someone else’s will.
Is it not odd that a morality tale highlighting the inadequacy of individual will should hinge so crucially upon language? “Getting monkeyspawed” usually implies a magickal intention that is verbally incomplete or ambiguously worded, as in the example of Boffo and I screwing ourselves over with the word “balance”. Wiccans habitually append the expression “an it harm none” onto their magickal intentions, and it might be supposed that if Mr. White had taken this simple measure it would have protected him from much distress, or at least have posed a greater challenge to the fakir’s intentions. Yet the Wiccans, sweet as they may be, are really only hedging the issue, because identifying what we don’t want to happen (i.e. harm) has always been easier than ascertaining and taking responsibility for our true desire.
And is it not equally odd how the notions of imposing will and of faults in linguistic expression match so closely the two definitions of magick bequeathed to us by Crowley? Namely: (1) ‘the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will’ (1913: 124); but also (2) his less-quoted definition of magick as ‘a disease of language’ (1913: 185). What is this strange link in magick between the vulnerability of will and the inadequacy of language?
“Disease of language” is an expression taken by Crowley from Max Müller’s ideas on the formation of myths. Müller asserted that myths were a linguistic corruption caused when abstract concepts become personified (1866: 12). Crowley describes – for instance – how Thoth was originally just a guy who invented writing (1913: 185), not the terrible ibis-headed deity that sprang into being after writing itself was personified. Yet the advantage of personification is the creation of a linguistic hook to assist further thought. Magick, like myth, Crowley suggests, is a linguistic process for bringing the abstract into manifestation through personification.
From this perspective, magick as ‘Change in conformity with Will’ is complementary, for when we will this too is a process of personification: we experience an impulse and then we own it and experience it as “ours”. Will is the personification of desire, because each time we say “It is my will…”, this is an identification with experience. Suddenly, a desire belongs to someone; it becomes what that someone wants. The act of willing brings into existence an entity every bit as mythological as Thoth: the I. For if the disease of language is personification, then every “I”, “me” and “mine” is a symptom.
Given that magick consists in personification of or identification with desire, this creates the possibility of intentions that fulfil a desire which turns out not to be “ours”. In the case of Boffo and I, we both experienced headaches when we actually wanted to be free from them. A desire was fulfilled, but the identification with that desire was not. We got what we did not want because we identified a desire rather than identifying with it. We fell victim to language in its literal mode rather than the diseased form in which magick resides. Our language wasn’t diseased enough to prevent what happened from fitting the intention. If our language had been diseased enough there would have been only what we wanted in the intention (because it would have been “ours”), and so what actually happened wouldn’t have appeared to fit, and would have passed without notice.
In “The Monkey’s Paw”, presumably Mr. White is identified with the desires he expresses in his three wishes. However, we have seen already that there is another desire in play, the desire of the fakir, which is namely that others shall realise their wants are ineffectual and that they are subject purely to fate. Anything Mr. White wishes for is therefore foiled from the outset. He cannot use language magically to personify his desire, because he himself is a personification within the diseased language of the fakir, a personification of the typical person who is incapable of realising his desire.
The only wish of Mr. White’s that is fulfilled is the wish to send back his son to the grave. As a personification, Mr. White’s desire to cease desiring is the only one that can be met, which is associated in the tale with wishing dead the one that he loves.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is a morality tale, a genre that relies on personification to transmit its message. At this level, the fakir is presumably a personification also – but of what? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Maybe he represents the Divine, as the ultimate source of all experience. On a more psychological level, maybe he is the unconscious. Or maybe he is language itself. In any case, he represents a force that alienates us from our desire. What the story seems to demonstrate is not that magick is necessarily evil, but that its efficacy – and ours – is undermined when we are barred from the process of expressing and exploring our own desire. When we cannot use diseased language to personify desire, we are trapped in a nightmarish world where what is said is literally what is, with no space for change.
The horror of “The Monkey’s Paw” is how we cease to be people and become personifications when our capacity to wish is taken away. Magick fails not when we wish for too much, but when we are prevented from engaging with our true desires.